Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

A Future of Hope
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 10, 2010
Texts: Romans 12:9-18. Jeremiah 29:1,4-14

Romans 12:9-18
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,  for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart,  I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.


Jeremy was one of my most thoughtful and genuine kids in youth group.  Raised by a single mom, he was wonderfully close to his grandparents and in particular his grandpa who had stepped in as a father figure to him.  Wonderfully intelligent and creative, his favorite pastime was creating movies with his friends – making up plot lines and acting them out in front of the camera.  The elaborate detail with which he could describe his movies conjured in my mind the extravagance of sets and costumes, makeup and story.

In youth group he was engaged, sweet, respectful, fun.  He was a joy to know and to be around.  He was also terribly bullied in school.  The school he attended was a very small rural public school and both kids I knew who attended both had problems with bullying.  As far as I knew at the time it wasn’t about sexuality or gender issues, although these kids were likely accused of that.  It was just about being different.  It was about being an outsider.  It was about being ostracized for who they were.

Their parents complained to the school.  The administrators said there wasn’t anything they could do about it unless they caught the kids in the act.  But bullies are notoriously secretive – words were usually spoken on buses or on the walk to and from school, whispers in hallways and locker-rooms.  Who could catch them?

It is a bit of an exile, isn’t it?  Perhaps not because we want it to be, but because our western culture has reinforced this idea that adolescence is this particular developmental period – that time when young people are betwixt and between.  No longer children, not yet adults.  The exile comes in part because children are set aside in education systems to learn, mostly with their peers, set apart from families and loved ones.  They are in many ways removed – removed from the work force, removed from family security, set aside to develop and grow into independent, autonomous adults.  There are good reasons for this separation – child labor laws, public education opportunities, but…there are some consequences as well.

If adolescents are already isolated, then the isolation that comes with being bullied is even more intense.  If a young person already feels not quite understood by the larger community, then how much more will they feel that if peers turn on them with words of hatred and bigotry.  Add to that the inescapable nature of the internet – so that bullying words can never be left behind but can appear about you even in your own home, on your own computer.  Add to that the way in which those words multiply and can be heard and read by thousands in just a few moments.  Add to that the possibility that the words used to bully and hurt are words that are true.  That the word that peers use to dismiss and denigrate is a word that names outwardly the very complicated feelings inside.  Add to that all those who stand by, silent.

Can we imagine a more painful exile or isolation?

The words of Jeremiah were spoken to the people of Israel during one of the most difficult times of their history: during the exile and destruction of the Temple.  The history of Israel during that time is a story of competing factions and alliances with Egypt and Assyria, finally ending with the prevailing Babylonians capturing the leaders of Israel and taking them in chains to Babylon.  At the time of our text we learn that the exiles have not been tolerating well their situation, and have begun to arrange a revolt against the Babylonians, joining with neighboring countries still resisting the conquests of Babylon.

They are preparing to fight back.

Jeremiah’s words come both as a surprise and as a warning.  For a people who had long been warned against marrying outside of their ethnic boundaries, for a people who understood themselves as set apart for God, Jeremiah seems to go against tradition and reason in his prophetic voice to the Israelites in exile.  Settle in.  He says, Find peace. “Build houses and plant gardens, take wives in marriage and raise your families… seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  Only when you have been there for seventy years will I bring you back to Jerusalem.”

We can only imagine how the exiles might have heard this word.  Despairing, desiring justice, desiring a return to hope.  So often when we want hope and justice we want it right now.  So often when we want relief we want it to come immediately.  “How can we sing a song in a strange land?” come the cries from our text last week.  How can we endure this pain any longer?

For the exiles, the need to revolt against Babylonian oppression must have been desperate.  But Jeremiah’s words are words of peace:  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…”  The word translated as “welfare” in this text is one that will sound familiar:  The word is “shalom.”  Shalom:  a word that means peace, prosperity, completeness, wholeness.  “Seek the shalom of the place where you are in exile, Jeremiah says, ‘for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.”

This surprising vision of peace: peace in the midst of foreign domination, peace in the midst of struggle and pain, peace in the midst of sorrow and isolation.  Is it even possible?  Can there be peace in the midst of such pain?

Over the past month or so we have heard story after story of young teenagers taking their lives in the wake of ruthless bullying by peers.  Each one of these young people: Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Tyler Clementi, had been ridiculed for being a homosexual.

In my struggle this past week to make sense out of the four suicides of young teenagers around the country – – in my struggle to understand and grieve – I came across a series of videos on you tube.  The videos are put together by Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender and supportive adults speaking to young questioning teenagers.  Each video is titled, “It gets better.”

In these personal testimonies, adults relate stories of how they endured torment and abuse at the hands of their own peers in high school.  Stories are told of being called names or spit on, of having property destroyed or being outed, of being physically abused, made to feel worthless and outcast.  But for each of these adults, they could also tell a story about how much better it got when they left high school, when they left a small community that could not see the beautiful person that they were, when they learned that there were others like them in the world – others who were ready to welcome them, others who were ready to respect them, to protect them, to believe in them, others who would worship alongside of them without asking them to deny who they were.  “It gets better,” they said, “you should be around to see it.”

As I watched I could not help but hear the words of Jeremiah to the exiles – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your shalom and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

What was painful in watching these videos, in listening to story after story of bullying of LGBT youth now adults, was fact that any of it had to happen at all.  If only we could turn back the clock – find a way to speak a word of hope, a moment of shalom to each of these young lost lives.  If there was a way to save these young lives, wouldn’t we all do it?  It is difficult to balance these words of Jeremiah, the words that tell the exiles to sit tight and endure with the utter urgency for justice.  It is difficult to listen to person after person tell young people that it gets better when the bullying continues.

But I wonder.  I wonder what it means that Jeremiah told the exiles that their own peace was wrapped up inexplicably with those around them whom they saw as enemies.  I wonder what it means that he told them that their wholeness was bound up with the wholeness of the one they saw as “other.”  I wonder what it might mean for us to understand that the shalom of our youth, the wholeness of our young people – especially those who we see as most different and strange – is tied up with our shalom as a wider community.  I wonder how our words might change, how our actions might change, if we see how directly we are bound together with the young people who are trying so desperately to figure out who they are and where they belong.

I wonder – how do we respond as people of faith to a community in exile?

Can we ask the most difficult questions of all: How are we culpable for the deaths of these young people?  How do our words and actions help kids feel the need to fit into some particular mold of perfect: attractive, athletic, intelligent, straight?  How do our affirmations and questions silently close them off to those things or people that they love?  How might we look at each young person in a way that truly sees them for who they are, instead of who we wish they would be?  How can we stand against bullies and intolerance of all kinds and speak out for the outcast, the isolated, the exile?  How can we remind each young person, every day, of the gift that they are to us and to God?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I have been a pastor to kids who are bullied and kids who bully, and I don’t know the answer. My heart is heavy with sorrow that any young person could be so painfully ridiculed and ostracized.  My heart is heavy with the knowledge that some of the worst bullying is reinforced if not done by those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, because they have found words in our scriptures to serve their purposes.

What pains me is that the voices of hate and bigotry so often drown out the voices of love and welcome and grace.  Perhaps it is time for that to change.

What they fail to remember is that Jesus said not one word about sexuality, but instead ate with outcasts and healed division.  What they fail to remember is that Saint Paul said, let love be genuine, love one another with mutual affection, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  What they fail to see is that we are all in this together – my shalom is your shalom, your wholeness is their wholeness.

Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for these struggling youth, one that embraces their wholeness and peace?  Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for each of us, no matter what our particular exile?  Do we believe that God has a future of hope planned for us, for each and every child of God?

Jeremiah says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your peace, for your wholeness, for your shalom and not for harm, to give you a future of hope.”

May it be so. Amen.


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The True Things

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery

The Larchmont Avenue Church

September 19, 2010

Text: Luke 16:1-13


Luke 16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


Joe had been the church treasurer for all of two months when Cheri first came to him, needing money.  She was one of those people at All Soul’s church who everybody knew, even if they didn’t want to.  Her mental illness and addictions had made it hard for her to stay off the streets, and she had been the subject at many conversations around the deacons tables, as together the pastor and the church tried to discern how best they could help.

They had decided, as Joe had been informed, to help her as best they could through the pastor’s discretionary fund, which sat in a marked envelope in the desk drawer in the treasurer’s office.  But there was always talk about the fund running out.

The previous treasurer had been one of those more anxious than not, and had begun to refuse Cheri’s requests, citing the many other people who were in need.  “This Church helps a lot of people,” he had said, “You aren’t the only one…  We just can’t keep giving like this…”

As Cheri had been tended to by the congregation, Cheri had also begun to feel part of the family there.  She worshipped regularly – some days looking so haggard some wondered if she had spent the night on the streets, other days looking so put together that at a glance she could be mistaken for any of the other housewives.

On those put together days, Cheri would walk quietly into the office as the treasurer counted the offering plate and pass over her “tithe” – a wad of rolled up bills, that might barely pay for his lunch at a restaurant.  Joe would smile at Cheri, thanking her with the graciousness he poured on every one of the givers, from those who gave checks that could cover the entire heating bill for the year, to those who… well to those like Cheri.

After Cheri left, Joe would unfold the bills and stack them, count them with care, and slip them into the marked envelope and back into his drawer.

Our parable for this morning is often called ‘the parable of the dishonest or shrewd manager,’ and falls immediately after Jesus tells a number of stories directed at the Pharisees about God rejoicing over the lost.  He talks about losing sheep or coins, and then culminates in the story of the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance and yet returns to his father and is welcomed in with loving arms.

In our story for this morning, Jesus turns from the Pharisees toward the disciples and tells this confounding little parable.  The story Jesus tells is of a rich man who has hired a manager for his estate.  The manager is not making enough of a profit, either because he has been stealing or because he has poor business practices.  Nevertheless, the rich man tells him he will be fired.  So, anticipating his layoff the manager quickly goes to each of his clients and halves their debts, knowing that their gratitude will win him favor when he is out of work.  When the rich man discovers what his manager has done, he commends the dishonest or unrighteous manager for his shrewd business practices.  Jesus ends the story with a series of sayings that confuse even more: ‘whoever is faithful in a very little,” he says, “is faithful in much.”

If you found yourself listening to this parable and wondering what is going on; you are not alone.  One commentary states: “The parable of the unjust steward had baffled interpreters since the beginning of time.”  Each commentary says something different, each makes different choices in interpretation.  It’s no wonder why many preachers avoid this text as an unplumbable mystery.

In sifting through the text, however, there are some things we can surmise.  One is that while many parables can be interpreted allegorically, (including the parable of the prodigal son which immediately precedes our text for this morning) – understanding characters in the story to represent God and others to represent us;  This does not seem to be one of them.

Both the rich man and the manager are unsavory in some ways.  We cannot understand God as one who would commend the manager for his dishonest practices, nor can we see God as the one who cooks the books so to speak to win himself favor with his former clients.  Instead it seems, that Jesus is telling a story about everyday life: this is a story about the way the world works.

And it is isn’t it?  Change the job title and the story could come straight out of the newspaper.  These are tough times.  Like the experience of the manager, layoffs continue, and many still continue in fear that tomorrow it will happen to them, that tomorrow will be the day when their business practices don’t make the grade, when someone else shows they can do better.

For those facing their worst fears already: college grads and the millions looking for work: it is all about who you know.  Who owes who a favor, what currency one has and what it might get them.  Making “friends” with the power or tools one can leverage to create the path needed.  It is always boggling when a parable seems to hit upon a certain timelessness in our dealings with one another; a man who is out for himself behaves dishonestly to save his own neck.

What’s harder to sort out, though, is what Jesus thinks about all of it.  One the one hand the gospels are never very kind to those with money.  The Jesus we meet in Luke’s gospel in particular challenges those with wealth and power again and again.  We hear it ring in our ears: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…sell all that you have and give your money to the poor…  you cannot serve God and wealth…  Jesus calls it “dishonest” or “unrighteous” wealth as if he thinks that all wealth is unrighteous.

On the other hand, he suggests that we might use it to make friends who might welcome us into “eternal homes.”  How can he commend the manager for behaving unethically?  The result is confusing: does Jesus think that all wealth is unrighteous?  What does he really mean when he describes wealth and God as two opposing masters?    He must know that money is useful not only for each individual but to help those in need.  One cannot serve them both, he says, but the parable seems to imply that one can, and in fact perhaps one should use wealth to serve God.

The result of this kind of thinking is complicated.  We get into very scary territory when we begin to interpret the gospel in a way that helps us to feel comfortable; when we start to see Jesus as a “genial suburban dude” who affirms our need for the security that money provides.

To be sure, Jesus is highly suspicious of wealth and power, and those who have a lot of it.  His stories and parables point to the ways in which the consumer can become consumed with stuff – distracted from the “true things.”

And yet.  And yet…

Jesus also seems to be saying is that there may just be a purpose for wealth and the kinds of gifts that go with it.

The power that the manager wields is a result of a faulty system in which there are haves and have nots.  The rich man owns much more than his fair share, and the manager has been making his living off of collecting money that continues to keep the peasants who work the land down and the rich man flush with cash.  The manager is in the middle.

For the wrong reasons, but still, in the face of crisis, the manager does something terribly radical, something only barely under his power.  He forgives debts.  He evens the uneven system.  He extends grace, and in so doing he participates in the grace of God.  Perhaps the dishonest manager is more of a prudent treasurer, like Joe who ignores the ‘ethical’ thing to act out of grace.  Perhaps he is commended because even by stumbling all over himself, he discovers how his power and influence can be used so that grace may abound even more.

On the heels of the story of the prodigal son, a story that continues to be told again and again about the radical nature of God’s grace to forgive and welcome in even the person who most deserves wrath and punishment, Jesus tells this strange story, that seems to say: Go and do likewise.

Perhaps this points at least a little bit to what Jesus wants us to understand: that faith is not simply morality, but instead the ability to orient oneself around the grace of the gospel and, by extension, by one’s ability to live out that gospel in daily life.  It is catching a vision of what the world might look like if God’s grace took over.  It is living out a life that creates that vision now.

As one commentator put it: “It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

This means understanding that if the gifts you have are great, the burden is also.  By pointing us to the manager Jesus reminds us of the power we have to participate in the grace of God.  We may not be at the very top, we may not even be the one with the highest ethics in the room, but we have the ability to choose small things that have enormous results.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little,” Jesus says, “is faithful in much.”

If you have the power to affect change…To feed the hungry as well as to work to reorient the systems that keep people in poverty; To give water to those who thirst as well as to work so that every human being has access to clean drinking water.  To welcome the stranger as well as to live out the conviction that in the eyes of God there is no stranger, only friends.  To forgive in a way that might transform lives as well as systems and structures of power…

If you have the power, or the money, or the influence, or the gifts to effect the kind of change that the Gospel points us to whether it is in small moments of grace or grand moments of forgiveness. if you can participate right now in the grace that abounds like a father who welcomes the prodigal home, like a woman who rejoices over a lost coin, like a manager who in his time of need looks to those around him and sees their need and acts – well…then what are you waiting for?

Seek the true things, and you will be rich beyond measure.  In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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The Apostle Paul: Slave or Free
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 22, 2010
Text: Paul’s letter to Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

As we have been digging deeper into the letters Paul wrote to Churches and fellow Christians in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s controversiality feels in some ways never-ending. Even those topics we might never have expected to be controversial, something such as slavery, Paul seems to make it so. Our text this morning is an entire book of the bible (though a short one) and remains perhaps the only personal letter written by Paul in our New Testament. The letter to Philemon in many ways exemplifies much of Paul’s ethic, that is, Paul’s understanding about how the gospel should effect our daily life, and so it does us well to spend some time with it.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is the one personal letter in our New Testament that is unquestionably written by Paul himself. I won’t go into detail about how scholars determine these things, but the letters to Timothy and Titus don’t seem to have the marks of true Pauline writing. However, this short letter, so often passed over in our New Testament, is Pauline through and through.

In it, Paul writes to a leader in the church in Collosae named Philemon, whom he seems to know quite well. The letter is brought to Philemon in the hands of a man named Onesimus, formerly a slave belonging to the household of Philemon, a runaway. As I mentioned last week the caste system was quite elaborate and culturally supported in the Greco-Roman world which Paul writes. A runaway slave was at the very bottom of the heap. The act of Onesimus returning to his former owner’s household would inevitably and necessarily result in severe punishment, even death. In other words, Paul is sending his dear Onesimus, his heart, into the lion’s den.

But why? What is Paul doing?

Once again Paul leaves us hanging. We want our scriptures to stand up for what we know to be right and true. We want Paul to say that slavery is an abomination. We want him to say, outright, that Onesimus should be freed, or even to say something like. “I’ve met your former slave and he’s staying with me.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says something more like: “I know you know what you’re supposed to do and I expect you to do it…”

While we don’t read this text very often, you might see quickly that it was read and preached quite frequently during the time of the Civil War in our country. Both sides had their opinions. The South preached that Paul allowed for slavery, pointed out that he sent Onesimus back to his owner to continue in his former life. The Northern anti-slavery preachers instead read between the lines of what Paul says and doesn’t say, and suggest that Paul “implies” that he expects his friend to be set free. He all but threatens him when he tells Philemon to prepare a bed for him, I’ll be there in a week. “Charge me any debt he owes you,” he says, “I expect you to do this…” But whatever we might try to argue – Paul’s inference is not as clear as we would like.

Is he ever? What is the deal? Is Paul against slavery or not? Why doesn’t he make things clear? Then again – Jesus didn’t make too much clear either.

This past week I got into a short conversation with a beloved family member about scripture. The conversation was familiar, since I’ve had it many many times before with many different people, and in that way I felt somewhat on edge and exasperated. It began in reference to my sermon last week, and my tendency throughout this series to speak of what Paul says, rather than what God says through our Holy Scriptures. “Aren’t these the words of God inspired by the Holy Spirit?” he asked…

The question of the divine inspiration of Scripture is a tricky one, particularly when it comes to Paul. There is much of what Paul says that seems heavily loaded with his cultural context. His assumptions: that women are in the image of man, that slavery is an institution we should accept rather than rebel against, that the purpose of marriage is to quell our enflamed passions. Paul contradicts himself often, leaving much of what he means somewhat unclear. The reality is there is much in our scriptures – even beyond Paul – that is hard to swallow. Stories sometimes called “texts of terror,” stories for which we should have no tolerance, texts which contradict themselves. None of this is easy to sort out.

So as thinking, believing people, how do we read these texts? How do we live out a life of faith that accepts some but not all of our scriptures as divinely inspired? How do we determine which to follow and which to leave out? It’s a good and necessary question for any faithful Christian.

The truth is, all Christians make these choices. We make choices, like I did in this conversation, about whether or not to engage or to look away. We make choices about whether or not we’re going to read the whole bible or just the parts we like. We make choices about which text will be our guiding principal, the text through which all other texts are read. Will it be – “Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one can come to the father except through me (John 14:6)”? Or will it be “God is love. Whoever loves knows God.(1 John 4)”?

The point is that it is a conversation. Divine inspiration means not that the texts were inspired once a long time ago and now we’ve got the truth in our hands. It means that the Holy Spirit speaks in and through our texts again and again if we only read them. And so as we discover new truths about gender equality and slavery and homosexuality we read our scriptures with new insight and new questions. They are the living word. A word that is not static but elastic, growing and revealing new truths at every turn.

As we look back at Paul’s letter to Philemon, we could point out that Paul does not explicitly say that Onesimus should be freed. In fact, the truth is that if he were freed, Onesimus would likely have been worse off than he was as a slave. With no protection and possibly no way to earn power for himself in his world. Please know that I am not, in any way, suggesting that slavery in the Greco-Roman world was like modern-day slavery; I am not suggesting that any slave today is better off. But in the Greco-Roman world, freed slaves were exiled and ostrasized, and their survival was often only through even more abusive and disgraceful means.

But Paul has said there is no longer slave or free. And if he truly means that, then how can he send a newly baptized Onesimus back to Philemon acting as though nothing has changed?

Everything has changed. Whereas we might fault Paul for coming up short, we miss Paul’s understanding of just how far the gospel of Christ goes to change the world in which we live.

Paul does not suggest that Philemon should free his slave, instead Paul suggests that he should treat his slave as a brother. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,” he says, “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

This is no small thing. Brothers in the Greek and Roman Social systems were supposed to have close bonds of trust and affection. Slaves, on the other hand, were orphans. They may have been born to slave parents, but their familial connections were unrecognized. As one commentator puts it, “A deep, broad, menacing chasm cut slaves off from legitimate children and free blood siblings. A slave was a filius neminis, a son of no one.”

Paul’s suggestion was outrageous. It was a joke. In Philemon’s cultural context, bringing this slave into his family tree makes any sense whatsoever. And yet, Paul suggests not only that Philemon can, and should take his former slave in as a full member of his family, but that it already is so. Paul suggests that in Christ these two men are already brothers, with those close bonds of trust and affection, and merely asks Philemon to act accordingly.

When Bill Nathan appeared on the stage at Purdue University during our Triennium worship, he already had us in the palm of his hand. We had just watched a video produced by ABC News about how one of their writers, Ben Skinner, had put everything on the line to charter a plane to Haiti in the first few days after the earthquake to save Bill’s life

Bill and Ben had met years before, when Ben was writing a book on modern-day slavery; Bill was one of the directors of an orphanage that took in former child slaves. During his time in Haiti Ben contracted a severe case of malaria and Bill tracked down the medicine he needed and nursed him back to health. Bill saved Ben’s life.

And so, when he learned Bill had been severely injured in the earthquake, Ben chartered a plane, got himself to Haiti, and evacuated Bill to Florida for treatment. Bill would not have survived if Ben had not made such a daring move.

The story of the earthquake is only half of it. As Bill Nathan walked back and forth on the stage he told us his own story of slavery. Bill had been orphaned at the age of five. Like many orphans in Haiti, had been given to a family who at first assured the nun who knew him that they would take him in and treat him as family. They lied. A few weeks after Bill’s parents died he began serving his new family as a slave. He slept on the dirt floor of a shed in back of the house. He ate only what was leftover and only alone in the dirt, never at the family table. He worked dusk until dawn, and if he resisted he was beaten severely.

After a few years the nun who had cared for him at the death of his parents rescued him and brought him to Saint Joseph’s orphanage, where they continue to help former child slaves. Bill grew up there. He was educated. He was hired. Now he works at the orphanage that saved his life. He spends his life returning the favor.

Both men in the story were visibly moved by their connection. The debt of life is a hard one to put into words. The newscaster asked Ben why he went to all these lengths to save his friend. “It was a debt I owed him,” he says… His pilot and friend in the rescue operation said, “When your family is in need – you show up.” Bill said, “God was watching over me.”

Brothers. Beloved. Free. What we see as impossible, God makes possible. Where we see no bond, God sees family.

Somehow, in Christ, these two men have been changed. Yesterday they were slave and master. But today, something new has formed. The old has gone, the new has begun. Today they are beloved family members. They share food at the same table. They share inheritance.

Paul’s ethic tells us that we are to go above and beyond what is required of us for one another. We do more than the minimum. We do more than write the check; we make the meal with our own hands and sit down and eat with together. We do more than put the welcome sign out; we sweep the floor and make the bed and put on the tea. We do more than forgive; we become family. We do more, more than we imagined, more than we can spare, much more.

We don’t always have the opportunity to save another’s life. We don’t always have the opportunity to bring another up out of slavery or poverty or hunger. But Paul’s ethic is one of boundless, irrational love. A love that is from God. A love that has already been set in motion through Christ. What he shows through his letter to Philemon is that the rules have changed even if the landscape has not. We are a part of a family that is beyond our vision or understanding. And when family is in need, you show up.

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Raising Life
A Sermon Preached at Larchmont Avenue Church
by Rev. Julie Emery
June 27, 2010

Luke 7:11-17
Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

There is a gut-wrenching moment that changes you. There is a moment when distant caring becomes a tangible, visceral, bodily response. For some it comes when experience unites your heart with another’s. For some it comes when feeling overflows into the body so that inaction is no longer an option.

If you talk with any activist you will hear the story of that gut-driven moment, and how it suddenly all changed. I myself have little moments – moments when the issue of violence against women became very real and terribly essential. The moment when the beauty of my surroundings made me reconsider my laziness towards recycling, the moment when I sat at the bedside of a dying man and understood what it might be to die with dignity and the expansive depth of grief. We have all felt them – those gut impulses of compassion for another, the desire to help, the desire to change something for the better, the desire to reach out beyond ourselves.

The word is pronounced “splagch – niz- omai” and it means literally “to be moved in the inward parts.” Rev. Crawford mentioned it last week when he named the word used to describe God’s fatherly compassion for the prodigal son returned home, the same word used to describe God’s love for those God knit together in our mother’s womb. Luke uses this word in only three places in his gospel: the story we heard last week of the prodigal son welcomed home by his ever-loving father, and the story of the good Samaritan, when the Samaritan is moved with compassion for the man left beaten on the side of the road. And then again in our story for today, when Jesus is so moved by the weeping of a mother at her son’s funeral that he breaks all boundaries to help her.

To be moved on the inside. To be moved in your guts.

In our story for this morning, Jesus is walking with a large crowd of followers and approaches the gate of a town in Galilee called Nain when he comes upon a funeral procession. The funeral is for a grown man, and we are told he is his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.

What seem to be small details are big ones for the widow. As I may have mentioned before a woman’s status and stability in the ancient world was tied to the men in her life. She belonged to her husband and then to her sons. Not only that, if a woman was left without both of these – she was in dire circumstances. This woman, upon the death of her son, likely would have all of her belongings returned to her deceased husband’s family, and she would be left with nothing. If the grief that one feels at the death of a child were not enough to collapse the walls around her, certainly the loss of all property and community would be her total demise.

Jesus sees her weeping. She says nothing. He sees her weeping and is moved in his guts with compassion for her. His words seem at first cold and hurtful, “Do not weep,” he says, as if that were even possible at the grief of the death of a son. But when he crosses over to her and puts his hand on the funeral bier; his gut feeling becomes bodily action.

I’m not sure there is much that can compare in our culture to the taboos that Jesus broke by touching the beir. The Jewish rules about cleanliness had strict guidelines about touching the dead, and this action of Jesus makes clearly violates those rules. Not only that but the mere fact that Jesus is moved by the plight of someone who is small and unimportant is problematic for the culture he lives in. By allowing himself to moved with feeling for a powerless woman makes him seem weak and unbecoming.

The widow is cast aside by her culture, now with no man to claim and provide for her. Jesus sees the unsightly, he notices the undervalued, he sees and he responds with action.

Today it is hard to imagine that by crossing cultural boundaries or physical boundaries we might truly jeopardize our own place in society or our own personal wellbeing. Maybe it is as simple as hugging a stranger at the passing of the peace without that squirt of sanitizer. Maybe we still know how eating with the wrong kind of kid at lunch makes us a pariah by association. Maybe we’ve experienced that inviting a certain person to the tennis club for dinner or reaching out to that immigrant on the street corner might put us in an awkward position with our friends.

But none of that really compares to the move that Jesus makes in our story today. It’s more like – kissing a dirty homeless man on the mouth in front of all of our friends, or treating an aids victim without gloves. Perhaps it’s more like giving so much of our own money away that it jeopardizes our own family’s security, or taking an addict into our home till they get back onto their feet. The act of Jesus toward the widow is reckless – without care for consequences. Can you imagine?

It isn’t simply that Jesus notices the woman, isn’t only that he welcomes her, feels for her, cares for her. It’s also that he takes tangible action to change her situation. It’s not just that he weeps with her, but he crosses the prescribed boundaries to act on that feeling-in-the-gut compassion. “Jesus doesn’t just take the widow’s needs seriously, he takes them into the core of his being and makes her pain his own.” And when her pain becomes his, it is impossible not to act.

I’ve recently started reading a wonderful little memoir called “Take this Bread,” by Sara Miles. She was raised an atheist, assured over and over again that anyone who would believe such silliness is deluded at best. And so she begins her book with her experience, raised as a liberal, and then giving over her early adult life to reporting on various communist revolutions in Central America and throughout the world. You know from the beginning of her story that she eventually finds a home in the church, but her writing is compelling enough to keep drawing you in, wondering what is the next step on her road to Damascus.

She writes a lot about food – and how throughout her travels and experiences in countries in the midst of civil and bloody wars she seemed to again and again be fed by people hungrier and poorer than she was. She understood even before she came to faith, that what we have in common with each other is our bodies, which means that we all have common needs. She understood, then, finally, when she accidentally received her first communion, that being moved in her inward parts was fundamentally about both feeling faith and doing faith.

After Sara Miles’s conversion she starts a food pantry in her church, which springs into dozens throughout the poorest parts of her city. For Miles, compassion is naturally linked to action, and so she lives out the gut-driven-faith she adopts. She is particularly drawn to the act of sharing communion, but I think she might also experience the act of baptism with that same deep movement. The waters that clean dirty, tired feet, the waters that refresh after hours of work in the hot sun; the same waters that cover a child’s head and claim her as God’s very own. Tangible, bodily, physical.

Professor Rolf Jacobson talks about how when we are baptized as Christians our relationship to the world changes. We still feel pain, we still make mistakes, but there is a new relationship formed with the world. One that means our solidarity with the rest of humanity matters; how we live in this world matters: what we buy, what we eat, what we give away, what we say… it all matters.

The way that Jesus marks change for the widow at Nain is more miraculous than we can fathom. Jesus says to a dead son, “I say to you, rise!” The text says that Jesus “gave him to his mother,” and in doing so he not only reunited and reconciled them but also saved her from the pit of despair and destitution. The act is one of those moments of the gospels meant to show us the power of Jesus as beyond even the most powerful prophets of Israel, meant to show us the divinity of this one called “Lord.” And in this way, the action of Jesus is beyond us too. Because that kind of raising of life is still beyond our power.

But for us, raising life may instead be about the act of crossing boundaries and changing the way things are seen. In seeing the unseen and acting in ways that bring about new life here and now. It may be an act of going just a little bit further: of letting the pictures of oil covered birds in the gulf move you to actually doing something about your own dependence on oil and dirty energy. Of letting the knowledge that you have a job when so many others don’t move you toward offering your resume skills to the jobless or finance expertise to the single mom looking for help with her budget.

Raising life may be letting the pile of food on your plate every night move you to pile food on someone else’s plate once a week at HOPE, or letting those bags of groceries you lug toward your house weekly move you to fill a few bags at the Hunger Task Force. Perhaps for us here and now Raising Life is not about raising one but about raising everyone’s life a little higher.
Perhaps raising life is about letting yourself be moved, in the gut, into action that Raises Life and Love for all. Amen.

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Handing Over
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 28, 2010 Palm Sunday

Luke 23:13-25, 32-33, 44-48
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.

I heard a pastor this past week refer to Palm Sunday as “whiplash Sunday.” She was referring to the experience we all have in beginning worship in Palm Sunday with Jesus’ triumphant processional into Jerusalem and ending it with his crucifixion and death. I learned as well that many pastors simply do not preach on this day. Instead they hold a dramatic reading of the passion story – much like we do at our Good Friday service. I don’t blame them. It is a challenge for anyone to try and deal with the onslaught of emotions that comes with the kind of journey that Jesus took over that week. From heightened joy and excitement to betrayal, trial, suffering and death. From the joyful cries of “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord,” to the hate-filled shouts of “Crucify Him!” It’s enough to give any of us a sore neck.

It’s not an easy story to tell in any sort of shortened fashion either. Luke’s telling of the final days of Jesus is told like any good scientist – with attention to the smallest details. And so from the triumphant processional to the crucifixion we cover five long chapters. It is a big story. It is The Story. The Story of our Faith. The Story we remember again and again so no one will ever forget.

Most of us would just as well skip over the hard parts – including myself. I’m not much for blood and gore. I could leave out the beatings and mocking. I always feel myself mentally looking away at Peter’s betrayal, like trying not to look at a car crash you know is going to happen. I just wish for once he wouldn’t do it. I shake my head at Pilate’s inaction in the face of the crowd who calls for Jesus to be killed. How can any of us feel anything but shame?

Just as well to go from the height of the processional to the empty tomb and skip over all that stuff. Just as well to focus on the glory of what God can accomplish rather than the evil that humanity can perpetuate. Just as well.

When we fast-forward through the events of the week as Luke tells it – we begin to see two divergent understandings of power that are the source of the conflict that ends with the death of Jesus: One vision of power that demands obedience through fear and violence; the other self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, a non-violent protest against the powers of this world. Powers still at work today, vying for our attention and commitment.

I was reminded over the weekend that this past Thursday marked the anniversary of one of the most memorable tragedies in the history of New York City, one that came long before the attacks on the world trade center in 2001: the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. In memorial, schoolchildren in the city and relatives of the 146 garment workers who died fire 99 years ago gathered to remember something that never should have happened. Most of the victims were women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, most of them heartbreakingly young.

They were killed because labor laws allowed the clothing company to lock the doors to keep them there, because the fire department didn’t have ladders that reached above the sixth floor, which was two or three floors below the workers trapped in the fire. Labor laws and fire departments have changed since then – in part due to this unspeakable tragedy.

Part of the annual remembering is led by a filmmaker named Ruth Sergel. Each year on March 25, she leads volunteers around the city to the homes of each of the 146 victims, writing their names in chalk on the pavement outside the buildings. She describes it as “a different kind of power” – the power of communal memory, of standing up for innocent victims, of standing up for justice.

Luke, more than the other gospel writers, is concerned about justice. At the death of Jesus, the centurion roman guard is given a line that proclaims the center of truth in the gospel writer’s eyes. In Mark and Matthew’s gospels the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

But Luke’s centurion says something different. The centurion in our text today instead says, “Truly this man was innocent,” he says.

“He has done nothing to deserve death.” “Truly this man was innocent.”

Luke takes pains to show us that Jesus went to the cross an innocent man. Pilate speaks to the crowd three times about his belief that Jesus did not deserve to die, but in the end sends him to his death anyways. The thief on the cross beside Jesus rebukes his mocking companion, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

“Truly this man was innocent.”

Despite his innocence, despite his words of hope and peace, there is something about Jesus that people resist and wish to eliminate. There has been something about Jesus that people have resisted all along. Throughout his life and ministry – the actions and words of Jesus have been met with opposition and even fury. This is not our kind of power. Our power is a power that keeps us – here and them – there. Our power is a power that builds walls of division, a power that perpetuates the huge gap between the poorest of poor and the wealthiest of wealthy. It is the kind of power that doesn’t want to share, that ignores the pain and suffering of others. Our power is a power that betrays, that condemns, that preserves the self at all costs.

Each of us has these stories – stories of our own betrayals and pain. Stories we have read or experienced which display the injustices that are part of the human condition. They have early beginnings – on buses and in school cafeterias – moments when we joined in mocking or at least looked away. Or perhaps we were the ones ridiculed and cast out because of a powerful crowd. Perhaps it is part of why remembering our adolescent years is so painful.

I can remember the faces of those I failed to stand up for. I can remember the shame I felt at being too weak.

Jesus spoke of a different kind of power – a power that proclaims release to the captives, a power that lets justice roll down like a mighty water, a power that lifts up the poor and downtrodden, and condemns the rich and haughty.

Throughout his life – Jesus acted with a different kind of power – a power that heals the broken, that welcomes the outcast, a power that forgives the sinner, loves the forgotten. In his final days ‘Jesus is silent when the world screams for vengeance, he is a man of peace while the world acts with violence, he is a person in prayer when the status quo is obsessed with politics and he is aligned with all who suffer and are wounded when the world looks towards power, prestige and ego satisfaction.’ In his final days Jesus stands with the least of these and in doing so Jesus stands for justice.

Jesus is all about justice.

Rev. Jim Wallis, progressive Christian author and editor of Sojourners Magazine tells a story about when he was in seminary and participated in a bible study that found “2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, about God’s concern for the left out, left behind, the vulnerable and God’s call for justice.” And then they took an old Bible from seminary and they cut out of the Bible every single reference to the poor, to social justice, to economic justice. When they were done, the Bible was just in shreds.” There was almost nothing left.

At the very heart of the story of the Passion of Christ we find Jesus in solidarity with the prisoner, the lonely, the betrayed, the beaten, the outcast. Jesus dies between two criminals, unjustly condemned to death…and we must ask ourselves…can we live with that? Can we live with the kind of power that rules our world again and again? Can we live with the injustices that occur everyday around us? Can we live with unjust healthcare systems, unjust labor practices, unjust foreign policy, unjust behavior toward our neighbors?

We must ask: will we continue to resist the love, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ? Will we silence the honest voice? Will we condemn the innocent agitator? Will we laugh at the misfortune of others? Will we pursue our own agendas for the sake of expediency and personal profit?

Or will we decide, “For the sake of Jesus, I am no longer going to participate in something that is vindictive, punitive, or evil.” Will we hand ourselves over to the power that Jesus offers? The power that stands for what is right and just and merciful and true?

Will we tell the story or will we live it?

Will remember the story or will we hand ourselves over?

Hand ourselves over to love and peace and forgiveness?

Hand ourselves over to hope and grace, and self-sacrifice?

Will we hand ourselves over to the power that conquers all – even death?


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