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Posts tagged ‘Homer Simpson’

Why Welcoming Everyone is Crazy

Mark 3:20-35

Two Sundays ago I called the Norristown Courthouse eight times.

Eight times.

You see, a month ago, I received my fourth summons to appear in Norristown, PA for jury duty.

juryDUty

Now this won’t be a rant about someone’s “civic responsibility” or bureaucracy, or the government, or whatever. Instead, I’m going to tell you my jury duty story, because something happened there that mattered to me.

I was shown great hospitality when I didn’t expect it.

Let’s go back to Sunday night. I didn’t sleep well. Perhaps I was anxious and overly tired, because I usually am on Sundays, and Monday is my day off. Or maybe I was anticipating something new and interesting; after all, I had received jury duty summons before but never actually had to show up. My lawyer friends scoffed, knowing that a clergyperson such as me would never get selected for a petit jury, much less a criminal case. But I couldn’t sleep, maybe because I thought: why not?

I rolled out of bed on Monday morning—resembling the freakiest of zombies—and I made my way to the courthouse. I went through the metal detector, scanned my little summons paper at the door and showed my ID. I put on my plastic badge with my juror number; I was in!

The room was packed. There were 300 people in there. Whoa. I couldn’t believe it.

jurorNo food, no drink. Just sit down.

That’s what the sign said.

Everyone looked tired. Some were visibly cranky. One guy all dressed up in his suit and with a briefcase, sauntered about the room as if to say:

Look at me. I’m so important. Can’t you see I have better things to do? Look at me!

One lady, in front of me, was intensely knitting something as if to say:

This is our lot in life. Suck it up, grin and bear it, we’ll be here for a WHILE.

Two other ladies in front of me gossiped about their families; a woman in a hijab asked me and the woman sitting next to me if we knew exactly what these numbers meant on our plastic badges. One lady didn’t my eye contact with a single person while she frittered away on her laptop. People kept coming in; some were visibly frustrated with traffic, or the parking, or perhaps…life in general?

The lady on staff who scanned us in and gave us our plastic badges entered the room periodically and said:

Juror number 5609, you need to fill out your juror info form. 5609? 5609?

Bueller, Bueller, Bueller?

bueller-anyoneThough we were all supposed to arrive at 8:00 a.m., it wasn’t until about 9:00 a.m. that the same lady patiently calling out numbers put in a DVD to fill us in on all the details of being a juror. The DVD speaker, Larry Kane of Comcast, reminded us:

If you are in need of an internet connection, you may visit the juror’s lounge and ask for the internet connection cable. That way, you can connect it to your laptop.

Yeah, thanks, Larry. But the nice lady calling out numbers just told us that wi-fi was free.

The DVD mercifully ended with Larry telling us how much of a privilege it would be to serve as a juror.

Another period of time passed.

tell-me-again-about-jury-duty1The kind lady who scanned us in, gave us our plastic badges, called out the numbers of people who hadn’t filled out their info forms, explained the DVD, answered a multitude of questions, and continued to run back and forth to the courtrooms—finally addressed us again around 10:30 a.m.

She maintained her bright smile and said:

Okay, everyone, thank you so much for your patience. They are ready for you, so what I’m going to do know is to read off 50 juror numbers. If your number is called, that means you have been randomly selected. Please stand and I will escort you to where you need to go.

She paused and smiled.

And I know that you’re tired and that the weather isn’t great, but hang in there. We will get you moving, and those of you who aren’t called, you are free to use the facilities or to get a drink of water, or whatever you need. Thanks again for your patience and your service.

One guy behind me sighed so exasperatingly loud that I could feel his eyes rolling even though I couldn’t see them. Another lady to the right shook her head in disgust.

But the patient, kind lady wasn’t fazed. She started calling juror numbers. My number ended with a 09. Numbers 08, 07, 06, and 10 were all called, but not mine.

Some people breathed a sigh of relief, others scoffed in disappointment.

And…the 50 chosen—they left…

Never to be seen again.

Finally, it was about noon and the kind-hearted, smiling, patient, hospitable lady [how I now thought of her] addressed the remaining lot by saying:

Some news, everyone. The last case to be tried is a criminal case.

Some groans in the crowds.

It has now gone to bench. So yes, I’m sure some of you know what that means. You’re free to go home! Don’t forget to scan your papers on the way out so you receive your stipend check in the mail. And thanks for your service.

And with that, three people actually said, a la Homer Simpson:

woohoo

We filed out of the courtroom. Some people were actually running. I’m not kidding. Cars whizzed out the parking lot.

As I sat in my car, I reflected on how jury duty experience had been so less painful than I thought. Why? The welcoming, hospitable, incredibly-patient lady on the petit jury staff who led our tired, grumpy lot through the morning.

On an early Monday morning in Norristown’s Courthouse, that seemed crazy.

Crazy, why? Because true hospitality is crazy. Do you know who was in that crowd of 300? Women and men of various socio-economic levels; people of all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds; transgender folk; religious and non-religious folk; people late and people early; people eager and people confused; full of all kinds of people.

And yet, that woman welcomed us all. Truly. I saw it.

And you may think I’M crazy for saying that this staff member of Norristown’s Courthouse was more like Jesus than most churches, but for me, it was true.

So let me explain why, and then you can draw your own conclusions.

Jesus of Nazareth, in Mark’s Gospel narrative, even as early as chapter 3, is already called crazy. The crowds who followed him, his own disciples, his own family—they are all confused about what he’s doing and saying, and they’re afraid of what might happen to him. Already Jesus had cast out a couple of demons and healed some sick people, and it was getting worse. He hung out with so-called sinners [called the untouchables]. One of his disciples collected people’s taxes; Jesus found it convenient to heal people on the Sabbath. So from the get-go, Jesus’ brand of religion did not fit the religious laws or social customs of the day.

So it’s no surprise, don’t you think, that people called Jesus crazy. Well, in their words, they called him demon-possessed, but in our context, demon-possessed would be batty, nuts, bananas, 5150ed, bobo, bonkers, certifiable, cray-cray.

Even his own family thought he was a little coo-coo, and that’s why they started to get protective. Can you blame them? Any parent out there, do you want your son or daughter to be at risk? Would you be happy if they chose a vocation or a calling that led them into danger, no matter how important it might be? Parents and family go into protective mode.

Jesus, stop. Just stop already. Tone down this radical hospitality to all people. It’s dangerous.

It’s been my experience that most Christians who regularly attend churches often think of hospitality as being friendly and nice to people—especially new visitors. But it’s usually temporary, because eventually, most church folk expect said new people to blend in eventually and learn the way that the church already does things.

Well, that’s not cray-cray Jesus’ brand of hospitality. Instead, Jesus meets people where they are and as they are. Everyone’s invited, no matter how messy and chaotic it may become.

That’s called radical welcome.

So I’m left with this question: are we considered crazy for the radical hospitality and welcome we show to all people?

We should be.

We should be pushing the limits of what hospitality and welcome mean—no matter how crazy it may sound or if it’s not religiously or socially acceptable.

If we truly embrace the radical welcome of Jesus for ourselves, this ought to be reflected in our treatment of others—how we welcome and accept them as they are.

How crazy are we?

Not nearly crazy enough…

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Mmmm…Salty…

Matthew 5:13-20   

We’re about to talk about NaCl. But before we dig into salt, some things to think about: Prior to this, Jesus of Nazareth gave his famous speech called the beatitudes and here we find the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel continuing with some words you can also find in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, though their versions are shorter:[1] Mark 8:49: For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” And Luke 14:34-35: Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored [or used for seasoning?] It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Matthew’s take is a bit different, isn’t it? In Matthew’s story, Jesus actually compares humans to salt. You are the salt of the earth. So let’s talk NaCl. Salt is important, is it not? saltcrystalsMost historical records say that the use of salt dates back to 6000 B.C.E. Egyptians used salt for a variety of things, including religious ceremonies and even money.[2] That’s right, salt was money. We get the word salary from the word salt, actually.   When something is not worth its salt that means of course that it is not fulfilling your expectations. Salt is worthy of its lofty, historical status. Consider that we are talking about Dead Sea salt from Galilee. deadseaSaltYes, that wonderful salt that comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. In fact, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt.

So that’s pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

But does salt actually lose flavor? You may think that it doesn’t, but sure it does. Salt from the Dead Sea or any other body of water is mixed with sand and other things. It is not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. The chemical impurities can decompose. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mixture can indeed lose its saltiness. So it was true that in the time of Jesus, merchants in Galilee would sometimes encounter a salt mixture that was not useful because it had lost its flavor. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt. So back to the metaphor.

How are humans like salt?

Matthew’s story has Jesus talking in the present and not the future tense. He says: You ARE the salt of the earth. So the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were already grounded in the identity of coming from the earth [and the sea], and having flavor, and also being incredibly useful for a thousand different things. This is important to note, because in the sad history [and present day] of human existence, we continue to say that some people are more important than others, more useful, more full of flavor, etc. But Jesus, in this case, says you all [plural] are the salt of the earth. Everyone is useful and has flavor and is uniquely salty. Even Homer J. Simpson. 24820BPThe-Simpsons-Homer-Mmm-SaltyBut Jesus [and Matthew] are not finished.

Not only are people salt of the earth, but also light of the world.

Just like with the salt, we need some context here if we are to get the light reference. Jesus was not talking to rich dudes; or political rulers; or even religious leaders. Jesus was talking to people who would be called poor by many and certainly would be considered poor in the material sense today. They were called salt and now they were called light. In their context, a house often had just one room. Therefore, anyone who enters such a house will immediately see the lamp on top of a stand. Remember, they did not have electricity—like many people in the Philly area this past week! So in Jesus’ time, many people would have an oil lamp on a stand, and the way they would put out the fire of the lamp was to put a bushel basket over the lamp. This is practical and necessary to do before going to bed so smoke and fumes stay inside the basket.[3] Keep in mind also that in this era, there were not hundreds of neon signs flashing, street lights, car headlights, or anything like that. When it was night, it was really, really dark. You could see the stars. So when the lamps were snuffed out, it was dark and hard to see. an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1 So, says Jesus, it is important that in calling these humans light, they should not put their light under a bushel basket. They should instead shine like a light on top of a hill. They should be bright. They should not be afraid to shine. They should be illuminating light—regardless of what others try to tell them they are or are not. And like the salt metaphor, people of light are connected to other people, and useful, and open. So there are two things that jump out at me here.

First of all, in Matthew’s story, Jesus is not calling religious people salt and light.

He’s not saying that if you believe this specific thing or if you go to this specific church—you are definitely salty and bright. Jesus is saying, to a group of often-marginalized and overlooked people, that they are already salty and bright. They don’t have to convert; they don’t have to follow certain moral codes; they don’t even have to join a certain religious club. They are already salt. They are already light.

As they are.

It’s just natural.

Secondly, the salty and bright people should not get discouraged or afraid.

Salt can lose its uniqueness and flavor. As people, we can, too. Enter stage left: assimilation and the pressure to fit in. Someone tells you that you need to change who you are because you do not fit their definition of a human being. You’re gay or lesbian…change your preference. You’re transgender…make up your mind. You’re poor…get a job. You’re sad a lot…take medication. You’re full of doubt…have more faith. You speak another language…learn English.

You don’t fit my definition of human…so change already!

We can be pressured to change who we are. But we shouldn’t. We don’t need to change the essence of who we are, because we are all unique. We are all salty. We all have flavor. We’re naturally ourselves. Actually, we can add a lot of good in the world if we are fully ourselves—honest and candid and real. In that way, we will also accept others as they are. So listen, don’t give power to others, allowing them to take away your saltiness or to cover up your light. You are already salty and bright. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t sing that way, or paint a picture like that, or that you should be just like them or that you’re not worthy to shine or to be salty. And don’t try to copy everyone else. Your light is uniquely bright because it comes from inside you. Likewise, don’t ever tell someone else that she/he cannot be salty or bright. Don’t force others to be just like you. Let their uniqueness shine through. And remember how Jesus closed this part of his Matthew speech. He talked about the Law, or in other words, the Torah commandments, which were summed up in: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[4] Being salty is being loving and compassionate. Being a light is shining love and compassion for all people. This does not mean that you save the world or make yourself famously salty and bright. It means that in your little, seemingly insignificant life, you have the salt and light already in you.

You have the capacity to love.

Because your so-called religiousness won’t do the trick; your holiness will never be enough; everybody breaks religious rules and fails to uphold religious doctrines and disciplines. Everyone. You will inevitably fall asleep praying; you will get tired of worship; you will sometimes not want to do the work of meetings and administration; you will get annoyed with church people; you will be sad and apathetic sometimes; your doubts about God will not fade away; and you may struggle with your spirituality every day of your life. You will have days and maybe months when you will struggle to get up in the morning and you may feel that you don’t have much of a purpose. You will sit in class at school and wonder if you matter. You will go to work only because you have to and not because you love what you do. You will stay in relationships because of obligation and not because of compassion. You will have moments when your light will dim and your saltiness will fade. Yes, you are human. But you can love. You can encourage someone who has been pushed down. You can welcome someone who has been left out. You can show compassion to someone who is barely hanging on. You can add flavor to someone’s day with laughter or a fresh perspective. You can treat people well—no matter where they are from or how they look. You can get up each day, and go to bed at night, with the realization that you were born salty and born with light. So be salty. Be bright. Recognize the beautiful flavor and light in all others. Be fully yourself and embrace the fullness of others. Amen.


[1] New Revised Standard Version. For side-by-side Gospel comparing, check out: http://www.utoronto.ca/religion/synopsis/meta-4g.htm
[3] Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce J. Malina,
[4] Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV.

A Trusting Identity: We Are a People of Continuing Testament

Luke 4:1-13     

These 40 days of Lent is a time to reflect on identity. Who am I? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Who are we? Whenever we look deeply at our own identity, if we are open, we can even surprise ourselves. We can find out something new that we didn’t recognize before. And always, always, identity formation is enhanced in community. The people around us help us to know ourselves better. I can certainly say that this has been true for me. Throughout my life, there have been people who have helped to shape and form my identity. Some were family; some were friends; some were teachers, mentors; and of course, the people we love deeply and commit our lives to [like life partners and spouses] help us see ourselves differently.

But there is trust involved. We won’t embrace someone’s viewpoint of ourselves if we don’t trust that person. If someone challenges us or encourages us to try something new or to change in a certain way, we do so because we trust that person’s knowledge of us. And we also trust that he/she has our best interests in mind and that this person loves us enough to tell it like it is—to be honest.

One of my struggles in all the churches I have been part of is the lack of trust I have often observed. There are a lot of people in the pews or on the church rolls who read the Bible, pray, serve on committees or boards, even preach and teach Sunday school. But they rarely [if ever] move past the superficial conversations to reveal doubts about God; or say that they aren’t sure about the Bible; or that sometimes there are not answers to life’s greatest questions. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of trust related to our tendency to check our brains outside the sanctuary’s doors. It’s weird, but once many church people are inside the sanctuary, they don’t think or ask questions.

As people of faith who then form communities of faith, our identities are formed by how we see the scriptures [the Bible], and our theology [how we think about God]. There is an identity phrase used by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. This phrase has sort of become the denomination’s unofficial slogan. There is a story behind it, as there always is. Some of you may remember the comedian George Burns. His wife was also a performer, Gracie Allen.

GracieAllenThey had their own show together. The story goes that after Gracie died, George found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter included the phrase Never place a period where God has placed a comma.[1] A few years ago, when the UCC was in the midst of developing an identity campaign, a man called Ron Buford was charged with leading the creative efforts. So he gathered ideas from people in local congregations around the UCC.

Ron was first inspired by a quote from one of the founders of the Congregationalist Church, John Robinson: O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word. The idea that there was more light to break forth and no period where God has placed a comma became God is still speaking.

CommaIt was not and is not a new idea, actually. Revelation continues; testament [literally, witness] continues. The Bible, though full of different religious traditions and a mash-up of different time periods and writers, we say is inspired by God. There is not a period. This means that one interpretation of a Bible passage or one theology is not the final one or the best one. God is still speaking means that what Reformed theologians like John Calvin or Martin Luther wrote or said or what Councils in Nicaea or Rome decided is not by any means the final word. God is still speaking recognizes that their perspectives were limited to their culture and time period and agendas. What about other voices and interpretations? This is what continuing testament is all about—trusting that there still light [new perspectives] to break forth.

For some, this is difficult to accept, and why people [within the Christian community] say that UCC stands for Utterly Confused Christians or Unitarians Considering Christ. The openness of the idea, however, of God is still speaking does not mean that we’re all relativists [and neither are Unitarians, actually]. In other words, we are not just interpreting the scriptures in a way that is convenient or consistent with our cultural practices, political beliefs, or just simply put—we are not seeking to interpret the Bible to mirror what we like and already think.

God is still speaking is about opening up the mind and heart to different and even difficult interpretations—perspectives that challenge our comfort zones and move us to humility and love-action. And yes, if we’re really open and ready to listen, we will find that some of our doctrines and dogmas were and are oppressive, racist, close-minded, and downright awful. Throughout history, people [and the church] have interpreted scripture in order to do something bad to other people. It still happens quite often today, I am sad to say.

This is one of the main reasons I decided to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ–precisely because I do believe that there is a LOT of wisdom, light, and meaning yet to be discovered. It’s really never-ending. I have no trust in a Biblical interpretation that cuts down other people. You’re Muslim—well, too bad! The Bible says you are going to hell unless you believe in Jesus; tough luck. Oh, you’re gay? That’s too bad, because even though Jesus loves everybody else, he doesn’t love you! You pray that way? Eat that food? Speak that language? Believe that about God? Good luck, because my Bible says: See ya!

 And yet, if God is God, how in the world could we possibly limit this God by slapping a period down at the end and saying: That’s it! There’s only one way to look at it! The Bible as a whole contradicts this. Have you ever compared the four Gospels? Their views of Jesus–what he did and who he was–are sometimes very far apart, and rightly so. Each part of the Bible has its own unique voice. Continuing testament, God is still speaking—the idea is nothing new. The Bible itself is made up of different viewpoints, theologies, and religious practices. Continuing testament is about being attentive to God’s creative movement in the world.

God’s not stuck in a book; or in an era; or even in a religion. God is love and that love is free.

It is with that effort to hear a Still-Speaking God in the Bible stories that we turn to Jesus’ retreat story. Notice I didn’t say Jesus’ temptation. I’m borrowing from Dr. Bruce Epperly, professor at Claremont University. Bruce equates Jesus’ so-called temptation in the wilderness with a spiritual retreat.[2] He argues that our take on the story is quite full of devil-baggage and thus, we miss the Gospel writer’s point. Jesus is on spiritual retreat—trying to find his identity after being baptized by John. Jesus goes to pray and think and journey. And in that process he comes face to face with himself.

devilIt is true that our view of this story is often clouded by our view of the age-old character, the devil. Yes, that evil dude with the goatee, horns, red suit, and trident/pitchfork. Honestly, there is probably no better example of a mishmash of history and legend than the character of Satan. Of course, less than 1% of how the devil is portrayed in popular culture actually includes what the Bible says! In fact, there is no devil in the Hebrew Scriptures [what Christians call the OT]. Evil yes; devil no. Even in the NT of the Bible, the personification of the devil is hotly debated. Yes, there are demons [evil, angry spirits], but always in people or in some cases, in animals. The devil as a personified character is never described physically. There are evil voices and people who do evil things—that’s it.

You see, over the centuries various cultures have defined evil in different ways. The U.S. concept of Satan or the devil is a combo of various Anglo-Saxon and other European traditions—mixing in a bit of Greek mythology.

FaustThe German tradition of Faust is often mistakenly combined with Jesus’ wilderness story. Of course, Faust, in the story, is a highly successful scholar who is dissatisfied with life in general and so he makes a deal with the devil to acquire unlimited knowledge. Many see Jesus’ wilderness experience as this personified devil trying to seduce him to make a deal. And this kind of thinking leads us to the idea that the devil appears in our heads or on our shoulders, trying to persuade us to do bad things. Finally, we come up with the famous but ridiculous phrase: the devil made me do it.

 

HomerEventually, we start to feel a bit like Homer Simpson who carried the burden of Good Homer and Evil Homer. Again, though, is this really what Jesus’ wilderness experience is about? Is there one guy who is pure evil and makes us do evil things? Do we make that guy responsible for the things we do? Honestly, I think this is harmful and certainly not truthful. All of us are responsible for what we do and say. Sure, we are all capable of evil. No doubt about that. It doesn’t take long to see that we are all capable of hurting, killing, destroying, stealing, lying, and hating.

But I argue that it is less about a pitch fork-wielding devil and more about a lack of trust. In Jesus’ wilderness retreat, he is “tempted” three times, but each time it is about trust. If Jesus did not trust that he would have enough to eat, then by all means, he would have turned the stone to bread. If Jesus did not trust that he had what he needed, he would feel the need to take power for himself; and if Jesus thought that God really didn’t care, he would throw himself down to test that theory. It is all about trust.

That’s the message I hear. In our identity as people of faith, it is about trust. We are in a relationship with a trustworthy God who loves us unconditionally as we are, creates all of us equally human; and leaves us with an incredible natural creation to care for and love. And God entrusts us with relationships, which are supposed to be built on trust.

Temptation, then, is really planting the seeds of mistrust in relationships.

We are tempted to lie if we don’t trust that a person will accept our truth.

We are tempted to be passive-aggressive and not talk with someone face to face, because we do not trust them to listen.

We are tempted to hurt another if we think that person will hurt us.

We are tempted to steal if we don’t trust that we will have what we need.

We are tempted to hate if we don’t trust that differences are okay.

We are tempted to be apathetic and individualistic because we don’t trust that our actions make a difference.

It is about trust.

And so, let us form an identity of trust.

First, trust that God loves and doesn’t hate. God creates and doesn’t destroy. God is engaged in merciful action and not legalistic judging.

And then, trust yourself enough to love someone as she is. Trust yourself enough to accept differences and even embrace them. Trust enough to stand up for someone when no one else will. Trust enough to be honest, and generous, and forgiving, and passionate about helping.

Trust.

There is more light to break forth.

God IS still speaking through your actions of justice, love, and mercy.

The testament continues…in you. Amen.


[1] Two Minutes for God : Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007) by Peter B. Panagore

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