September 5, 2010
In a departure from our usual practice of having a single preacher or small group bring us the Word, Celebration Circle is inviting ALL of us to bring the Word this Sunday (September 5). In order to do this, we are hoping that everyone will spend a little extra time with the lectionary scriptures — Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 – and reflect on the following questions:
Do you see a need to “turn from evil”—to turn toward God—in your own life or the life of Seekers Church? What does this turning look like to you?
How do possessions and personal ties play a part in turning you away from God—preventing you from being a disciple of Christ?
What helps you/would help you turn toward God? What does that turning cost you? What do you gain from becoming Christ’s disci
Two Seekers wrote thoughtful reflections which we publish here. The reflection time opened with the following from Elizabeth Gelfeld:
When I got the email from Kate inviting all of us to reflect on the scripture readings for today and help bring the Word of God, I was excited. The questions Kate sent us fascinate me, and right away I wanted to join in this conversation. Later, after some consideration, I thought maybe I should actually have read the scripture passages before jumping in.
The readings from the prophet Jeremiah and the Gospel of Luke are hard. They make me squirm. They are not hard to understand. In the words of the 19th-century, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard,
The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.
How do possessions and personal ties play a part in turning you away from God – preventing you from being a disciple of Christ?
If I cut through my “scheming swindling” and honestly listen to Jeremiah and Luke, the question really is, “How can I be a disciple of Christ while being a member of the American middle class, or, as one writer put it, the “capitalist entertainment empire”? Is it even possible?
I know that Seekers church, and the Church of the Savior, have been grappling with this question for all the decades of their history. While many Christians today are just beginning to address seriously questions of poverty, privilege, and justice, I am aware that, at Seekers Church, I am entering a conversation that has been going on for a long time.
In one of the books I consulted as I tried to figure out what to say to you all today, I found a handy, five-point list of Biblical themes of justice, with a reference for each. Here they are, from the book Justice in the Burbs, by Will and Lisa Samson:
Care for the poor and oppressed – Luke 4: 16-19
Concern for the environment – Leviticus 25: 1-12
God’s love for the foreigner – Isaiah 56: 5-7
Condemnation of those who do not share their wealth – Ezekiel 16: 48-50
God’s view of those who profit at the expense of the poor – Jeremiah 22: 13-19
I believe that a good definition of evil is doing the opposite of what the Bible tells us regarding those five themes. For myself, I particularly need to focus on the last one, God’s view of those who profit at the expense of the poor. Interestingly, the scripture reference given for this one is also from the prophet Jeremiah, and I’ll just summarize it by saying that God does not approve.
So, how do I profit at the expense of the poor? Well, for one thing, I have the privilege of buying fresh, organic, local produce up the street at the Farmers Market today, while, a few miles away, to quote a resident of one such neighborhood, it’s easier to buy a gun than a salad. I benefit from the system that creates little apartheids all over this country. For another, I am one of the 5 percent of the world’s total population that consumes more than 25 percent of its energy. Because I don’t want to give up the convenience of my car, which gets me to work in about a third of the time public transportation would take, I am part of the system that has raised the temperature of our planet more than a degree and a half Fahrenheit, increasing total global rainfall 1.5 percent per decade. This affects vulnerable areas and people long before it will ever affect me – witness the flooding in Pakistan.
Last year I participated in a program called JustFaith. It’s a program offered by the Catholic Church, although there’s now also a Protestant version. In JustFaith, you commit to a small group for 30 weeks, September through May, exploring the intersection of justice and spirituality, hearing the voices of the poor, studying the root causes of poverty, both domestic and international, confronting consumerism, racism, violence, and so on. My group of eight read the assigned books and met weekly to discuss the reading, to watch videos and occasionally hear speakers, and to pray. Also, several times during the year, we made what JustFaith calls a Border Crossing – a field trip into an impoverished community. Serving the community might be part of the visit, but the main purpose was to meet and talk with people across the border of our comfortable culture.
These visits were the most difficult and most powerful experiences of my JustFaith year. We visited Community Vision, where Sandra works, and we listened to a homeless man describe how thankful he feels every morning for the blessings he has, for another day of life. We also visited Living Wage, a ministry in Southeast Washington where a nun, a layman, and a lot of volunteers give one-on-one tutoring to help former high school dropouts get their GED. Some of the Living Wage graduates go on to college; many return to teach others. One young woman, a recovering addict and mother of teenagers, talked enthusiastically for at least half an hour about how she couldn’t get enough of the education she was receiving at Living Wage. She was excited to be nearly ready to graduate, to be setting a positive example for her children, to be looking forward to a better life. She said that, when she came to Living Wage, the people there accepted her and loved her, and that love changed her life.
So, to return to one of Kate’s questions, hearing the stories of people outside my insulated, middle-class groove – people I need to turn toward, to be in relationship with, in order to turn from evil and toward God – hearing their stories gives me a hint of what I stand to gain from becoming a disciple of Jesus: gratitude. Real gratitude, which wells up from the heart.
As my Just Faith group entered the final weeks of meetings, we began to consider specific ways we could change our behavior, and turn from the evil that we find ourselves in. And I have begun to make some changes, although I have a long, long way to go. It is hard, but occasionally I interrupt all my thinking about acting justly and I really act. So far, the costs have not been great – a little inconvenience here, a little embarrassment there. The rewards of any actions I have taken have far outstripped the costs. I wonder what might happen if I actually did what Jesus said, and gave up my whole life.
What helps me, or would help me, turn toward God? I hope that Seekers Church will help me. Around Easter, I began to feel a pull – a call, perhaps? – toward this community. For one thing, you seem in many ways like a big JustFaith group. You devote yourselves to both spirituality and justice – inward/outward. You give half of your treasure to works of justice and mercy, and you make sure you are in relationship with people and communities to whom you give. You do not deal in cheap grace; you expect that all of us will become disciples of Christ.
And from Pat Conover:
The following paragraphs are from a section called “Responding to God’s Judgment and Grace Requires Courage,” the first section of Chapter Two called “Courage and the Christian Story,” in the second draft of my manuscript: Progressive Christian Theology. Since this work is in manuscript form and subject to additional revision it is available for reading only and may not be copied and shared off the Seekers website.
I think of sin as pervasive and unavoidable but not as a fundamental change in the metaphysical nature of human beings, not as falling from a speculated state of grace to a state of sin. We are able to make good choices, to have good intentions, to be committed to ministry and stewardship, to healing and honesty, etc. But we are human creatures and not gods. We have limited ability to grasp the lures of God, limited ability to communicate about life in general and about the things that matter most. We have multiple kinds of standpoint dependence that lead us into error and confusion and the injury of others even when we are trying to do what we understand to be the right thing.
Sin is social and cultural and not merely personal. We are always people-in-relationships, a concept I will develop in the next chapter. I share in the sins of the United States. I share in the sins of the companies I buy paint from. I share in the sins of my neighborhood. Even though I did not like it when the United States attacked Iraq, didn’t like it that the paint I buy has chemicals in it that pollute the Mississippi Delta, didn’t like it that the protectiveness of our neighborhood sometimes has shown up as racial stereotyping, I am still part of all these human constructions. If the United States had not attacked Iraq the sins of Saddam Hussein and the sins of oppressive sanctions would have continued. We can do things to reduce sin in our direct interpersonal relationships, though that is not so simple either. Our sins as citizens, and customers, and neighbors are impossible to completely overcome. Prophesy and advocacy and consciousness raising and caring and voting and stewardship and more can help us collectively reduce sin. The point for this chapter is that it takes courage to live in the midst of sin, to accept guilt and responsibility as landmarks for living well. Awareness of the pervasiveness of sin leads to acceptance that we must continue to “pay the wages of sin” in old language, to accept that our lives will be impacted by the results of the anonymity, confusion, and alienation that arises from injustice, lack of caring, exploitation, selfishness, mistakes, ambivalent opportunities, etc.
The results of sin: the crime, corruption, hostility, manipulations, misleading marketing, public relations coverups, rudeness, are all signs of God’s judgment. We are sinners. We are agents of God’s judgment. We are hurt by the sins of others, including the sins that are partly caused by our own choices and actions. We are responsible and guilty even when we are doing our best. Confession and repentance are necessary and they are not enough.
Salvation is enough, enough to live well in the midst of sin, enough guidance to make our best choices and to realize that our best choices are commonly not perfect choices. Salvation is enough to offer forgiveness to others, to start over and over again in relationships, building on what we learn, hoping to do better. Salvation requires humility and courage and caring. Most of all, salvation require love in the midst of unreadiness and imperfection and confusion. Risking into love, making mistakes out of love, takes a lot of courage. Accepting the hurt that comes with rejected love, with misunderstood love, with love that raises discordant implications, requires the acceptance of pain.
We can also be agents of God’s grace. We can live well before the world gets any better. Understanding the possibilities for grace; seeing the emergence of grace; risking into living by caring, stewardship, and ministry; hoping toward solidarity; is what my life and your life can aim at. This book is aimed at helping you experience more that is wonderful and engaging in life without distracting from all that is messy and troubling. Thankfully, we have access to the lures of God, can see and experience God’s activity in judgment and grace. We have the hope that arises from realizing that God is active in all situations before we show up, that we can embody grace, that we can make positive contributions. We can be thankful as mere creatures that everything doesn’t depend on us. Salvation is wonderful and messy, engaging and troubling, joyful and heart-breaking. Salvation includes celebrating together, grieving together, working together, correcting each other, and forgiving each other.
Many other Seekers shared from their work with the lections and questions for a very rich time.