It doesn’t have to be men with pointed hoods and robes burning crosses on lawns. It’s not always found in name-calling and ethnic slurs. Sometimes racism can be found in the little assumptions we make about other people because of what they look like or what we see on TV. Sometimes racism can be found in the way we choose not to include others who don’t seem to “fit in” to our group.
And sometimes racism can be found in the seemingly innocent comments of little children.
My daughter and I were on a school field trip one day and she was sitting right across from me and next to one of her friends. They were chatting as kids do, when a boy came up to her with a question. He asked, “What are you?” At first, my daughter gave him a quizzical look as she tried to figure out what he was asking. Finally, she just responded by saying, “Huh?” And he repeated again, “What are you?” And then added, “I mean are you Chinese or something?” Now, just for full disclosure, my ethnic background is Japanese and my wife is Caucasian so Emma is a beautiful mix of the two of us, but she definitely has an Asian look. Emma answered, “Oh, I’m Japanese, but I have some American Indian and some English and some other stuff, too. What about you?” And this is where it gets me.
“I’m an American.”
I have to admit to being offended, even by this little kid. He said it like it’s his ethnicity. But unless he’s 100% Native American, I’m betting he has some immigrant blood in his veins also. My guess is being white, he probably had some European heritage in him. I spoke up, “Emma’s an American, too. So am I. We were all born here.” And then he said with some conviction,
“Yeah, but I’m an American American.”
Wow. What do you say to that? Do you feel bad for him that he has no sense of ethnic identity? Do you try to make him understand that being American isn’t about race but about citizenship? Or do you just wonder what kind of parents don’t teach their kids the difference? I don’t blame the kid. Honestly, I don’t. He only knows what he’s been taught – or not taught – by his parents, by his environment, sometimes by the media and pop culture that fails to include the rich diversity of life we find every day whether we acknowledge it or not.
Cognitively, I’m sure he’ll learn that being “American” is not an ethnicity, but I wonder if he’ll ever totally understand that he’s not “more American” than other people who look different than he does. He might acknowledge it, but this attitude that somehow some of us are less worthy of being American is one that seeps into our national landscape.
And that landscape is changing. It’s estimated by 2043 that white, non-Hispanic people will no longer be in the majority. Already in New Mexico and California, Hispanics now make up the largest single ethnic group in those states. Our ideas of what it means to be “American” are shifting rapidly, but I think that’s not just a good thing. I think it’s a great thing! As more and more people are added to the Great American Melting Pot, the stew inside becomes even more flavorful.
Already American preferences have influenced how we eat. We think of California Rolls as sushi, but they’re called “California” rolls for a reason. Nobody living in Japan thought of stuffing avocado into rice and seaweed. Sweet and sour anything seems Chinese, but really was invented in America to be more palatable to people’s taste preferences in the States. And don’t get me going about fortune cookies! Whatever California native thought of that was a marketing genius!
Racism doesn’t have to be openly vicious or harmful. Certainly this little boy wasn’t intending to harm my daughter. He was simply perpetuating a myth he was brought up to believe or had never been taught any different. But it does hurt to think that somehow, based on the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes, you’re somehow less American. That somehow you don’t belong as much as other people.
If we’re going to work on eradicating racism in America, we have to be aware of what we teach or don’t teach our kids. Hopefully, we’ll embrace the concept that America really is the Great American Melting Pot; that we are made better because we embrace and incorporate the cultures of those who come to this country. What makes America unique is that we are a truly heterogeneous society with no one origin story. What makes us unique is that everyone can be American.
It seems overwhelming.
I don’t know about you, but everything having to do with the Coronavirus at times seems overwhelming. If you turn on the news or listen to the radio, you can’t help but watch the number of people who have the virus keep growing. At the same time, the death toll continues to go up at an alarming rate. I’m both fascinated and disgusted with the little stats tracker most TV news stations keep up on the right-hand side of the screen that shows both numbers day after day. But I also can’t help myself from looking and feeling pretty helpless before this invisible enemy. I know a lot of you are anxious. I know a lot of you are worried about getting ill or maybe worse worried someone you love will get ill. And even though they’ve stressed over and over that most of us, even if we get the Coronavirus, will recover just fine, it’s hard not to fixate on the negatives. People over 65 are at higher risk. People with underlying health conditions are at higher risk. And this one they popped out just a couple of days ago, men are at higher risk. And even if you aren’t in any of these groups, you can be a risk to the people around you. It’s put most of us at least a little on edge and some of us a lot.
What do we do?
When we are faced with a situation like this where so much seems out of our control, what CAN we do? We can listen to the experts. We can protect ourselves and our loved ones by being physically distant while still reaching out to one another. For those who are able, we can offer a helping hand whether that’s shopping for a neighbor, buying dinner through Door Dash to support a local business, calling a friend who might be lonely, writing a letter to someone who would love a little sunshine in the pile of ads and bills. And we can pray. As a people of faith, in times of strife, in times of darkness, in times of joy, we can pray. It’s what we do.
But does it work?
Most definitely, yes. Let’s get that out of the way as soon as possible. I want to assure you that prayer works! God listens to each and every one of us. God hears us and knows our pain, knows our happiness, and knows our struggle. But I find that even among those who believe we struggle with what prayer is and what it does. Some feel foolish praying. Some feel pessimistic praying. Some just feel like there is no evidence that it works at all. But I guess it depends on your definition of “works.” The biggest problem is how to measure the effectiveness of prayer. Dr. Candy Brown from Indiana University in Bloomington wrote that most researchers study prayer as they would any other phenomenon. They set up studies, they do double-blind trials, they set up a control group and an experimental group, and then they compare results. But maybe that’s part of the problem right there. Maybe you can’t measure the effects of prayer simply by doing blind trials. As Brown noted, “…when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person and empathize with their sufferings… Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice.” Prayer is such a personal experience and the results may not become evident for a long time or they might unfold in a way we never expected.
That’s the biggest problem with trying to measure the “success” of prayer.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We often say “Wishing Well” prayers. By that I mean, we tell God what we want and we measure our prayer’s success on if we get what we ask for. Like a Wishing Well. And then we judge God by whether or not God lives up to our expectations. Except God doesn’t work that way. If you’ve ever heard the song “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks, you know what I’m talking about. Garth sings about how when he was young, he prayed hard for God to help him out with a girl he liked. That if God would make this one girl his wife, he would never ask for anything again. But God didn’t answer that prayer. At least not in the way he wanted at the time. Instead he ended up meeting the woman who would one day become his wife and he sums it all up in the chorus by saying, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” We’re going to hear about one of those unanswered prayers in our reading today.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” – Matthew 26:36-46
God didn’t answer this prayer.
At least not the way Jesus was asking him to. Jesus knows what’s about to happen. He knows the agony he is about to endure. And he begs God to let him off the hook. But God doesn’t do it. God doesn’t save Jesus from a death most would consider cruel and evil. Instead, God lets it happen. God lets the most blameless, sinless, holiest person ever to walk the Earth, die on the cross. And it’s not like God couldn’t have saved him if he wanted. After all, if you read the story of Elijah, one of the great prophets of Israel, God just whisks Elijah up to Heaven. It was within God’s power to do so. But instead God let him hang on the cross. Jesus was even mocked for God’s inaction. They ridiculed him. Dared him to save himself. Put a crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him saying “King of the Jews.” If there was ever any evidence that prayer didn’t work, this was it! Except that God had something else in mind.
We know the end of this story.
We know that Christ died for us. Because we are at the other end of history. But at that time it must have been hard to believe. Look at Peter. He denied even knowing Jesus. Hardly any of the apostles came to support Christ in his greatest hour of need. Jesus was left alone by almost everyone but a handful of people. But we know how the story ends. We know that Christ rose from the dead. We know that because of his willingness to trust in God, we have been forgiven for our sins. And we know that God had something greater in mind than what we could possibly imagine. We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria. And if God fails to live up to our expectations, we tend to think that he must not care, or he must not have heard, or he must not exist. But God operates on a whole different level than we do. The concepts of time and space are not the same for him as they are for us. And a being who lives in a reality so different from ours cannot and should not be judged by our standards. And this is where trust comes in. We need to trust that God hears our prayers. Our prayers are not falling on deaf ears, but on the ears of someone who loves us intensely. And just because we don’t get the response we’re looking for doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care.
I do believe God answers prayers.
Why some people get what they pray for and others don’t, I think is really about our own expectations rather than if God is listening and answering. It could be that God answers every prayer in his own time, in his own way. Some prayers seem to get an immediate response and some just seem to languish. Sometimes it takes years to see a prayer get answered, even decades. I am still struck by the story of a man I was able to baptize much later in his life. I believe he was in his 60s or late 50s. Either way, God caught up to him and struck him in a powerful way. He told me pretty much his entire adult life his mother had been praying for him to come to know God, to be baptized and accept Jesus in his heart. And for decades that prayer went unanswered. Finally, he came around. Through a series of incidents, he decided to be baptized and only about a week or two after he was baptized, his mother passed away. He hadn’t been baptized just to please his mom’s dying wish because her death was unexpected. She was older to be sure, but had no indication she was close to passing on. It was hard for me to hear this story and not think she was holding on just long enough to make sure her son was alright before letting go.
Our definition of whether or not prayer “works” is too narrow.
Science definitely proves there are benefits to prayer. Prayer has been shown to improve self-control, to make you nicer, to help you be more forgiving, to increase your trust, and offset the negative effects of stress. Pretty awesome benefits. I would think that anything that give you more self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, trusting, and less stressed out definitely “works!” But praying to God isn’t like tossing a coin in a wishing well. Prayer isn’t meant to be simply telling God what we want and then getting everything we desire. Prayer is about this ongoing relationship with God that helps us to trust in him and know that he is there. Prayer is meant to be a regular, constant building of a relationship with God that brings us comfort in times that are dark and joyous in times that are bright. During these times of doubt and anxiety where every day seems to bring up new problems and new dilemmas, I want you to give prayer a chance. Keep your social distancing, stay in self-isolation, do what you can to help your neighbor and loved ones, but don’t forget to turn to God in prayer. If you don’t already pray regularly, try doing so. Pray every day even if it’s just for a little bit. And don’t worry about saying the “right” prayer. God is simply waiting to hear from you. Just pray. Open yourself up to what God is speaking into your life. Truly listen to where God is leading you through prayer. And know that God is there. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:7-9
Hope will not stop the coronavirus from spreading.
Hope will not protect you or your family from getting it. Hope will not find a cure. When people talk about “hope,” there is often a misunderstanding of what it is and what it can do. As Rick Page once said to me, quoting from his book, “Hope is not a strategy.” Hope by itself won’t solve the current crisis, but we need it, perhaps more than we need any other thing to get us through. Because while hope isn’t a strategy and while hope isn’t a solution, hope is the fuel that will power us to the end. Hope will be what carries us to the next thing and the next thing and the next things when we run out of things to believe in. When we run into a brick wall and can’t seem to find a solution, hope is what will enable us to keep searching until we find the hidden door that leads us to the next level. Hope is the fuel for our soul. It’s a good thing for us God has it in abundance!
I can only imagine what the Israelites were thinking as they walked around the walls of Jericho.
If you don’t know the story, God tells his prophet, Joshua, that God is about to deliver into the hands of the Israelites the Promised Land! The land of Canaan is to be given to the Israeli people which meant that God will be with them as they conquer the land. Today, the land of Canaan encompasses Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. But this wasn’t going to be an easy task. Cities like Jericho were fortified and for the people of Israel to launch an assault on a fortified city would have been a blood bath. So God instructs Joshua how to tear down the walls to give the Israelites the chance to break through. Did God tell them of a secret underground tunnel they could use to sneak into the city? No. Did God tell them of a weakness in the defensive strategy of the people of Jericho? No. Instead God told them to walk around the walls of the city once a day for six days and then on the seventh day to walk around it seven times and blow a horn and the walls will fall. Imagine being a solider in the Israeli army and being told you were going to conquer a city by simply walking around a wall and shouting at it. You might have thought Joshua had finally gone off the deep end. But God had done so much for the Israeli people already that they had faith in him as a prophet of God and that gave them hope that this too would work. And that hope gave them the fuel to do the impossible. And the walls came tumbling down.
We are in the midst of our own time in the desert.
A time of anxiety. A time of insecurity. A time of testing. To be clear, God did not create the coronavirus to test us. There are people out there who will say outlandish things like that, but that comes from a deep misunderstanding about who God is and how God works in the world. Rather, whenever the people of God are going through tough and difficult times, it is a test of our faith. And right now, we are in the middle of that desert. Nothing around us as far as the eye can see. No idea about where our destination will ultimately be or what it will look like or how long it will take to get there. I feel myself glued to the TV screen or to NPR, waiting for the next press conference to tell me how something else has changed in my life. I keep getting messages from every company I’ve ever given my email address telling me the twenty ways they are doing their part to protect me and I keep thinking, you mean you didn’t wash your hands when you served my food before? My heart sinks to think of all the people living alone out there who are in isolation and just need someone to talk to or hold their hand or give them comfort during this time of increasing loneliness. And like a desert, it seems to be without end.
But we are a people of hope.
God shares with us so many stories of inspiration through the eyes of his people. We read in Genesis about God promising Abraham he will be the father of many nations and indeed though his sons, he has. We read in 1 Samuel about David being chosen by God to defend the nation of Israel and when there seemed to be no hope left at all, David defeated the champion of the Philistines in a single blow. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus shared with us all that even in death we have hope because he goes before us and prepares the way for our return home to God. But if all we had were stories from 2000 years ago, it would not be enough. If our only evidence of hope came from people who were long gone, it would not be enough. But thankfully, God’s work in the world didn’t stop with Paul and the apostles. Even the Bible doesn’t cover every story of God’s amazing work in and through his people. John wrote, “30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The story of God lives on in each one of us.
Gone are the days of the burning bush as cool as that would be. It’s not likely that we’ll get to cross the River Jordan because the waters part before us. Instead, God is made real in the love we share for one another. We become God incarnate in the world today, Christ embodied in human form. In every kind word, in every prayer, in every act of kindness, God is made manifest. And one day our time in the desert will end. One day, we will come together once again and this time of testing will be over. But until that time, we do what we can, wherever we can, to be God incarnate to a world that needs us more than ever. Paul wrote a passage in his letter to the believers in Rome about how they should behave to reflect their love of Christ. He wrote:
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:10-13
That sounds like a pretty good prescription for what we should be doing in these trying times. The doors to our building might be closed, but the church is open! Let us take these words of Paul to heart and continue to be devoted to one another and to honor one another. Let us continue to be enthusiastic for the work of God in the world and to join in however we can. Let us be patient in this time of affliction, let us be faithful in prayer, and let us be joyful in the hope that we have. And above all, let us practice hospitality to the Lord’s people who are in need.
We have devoted our time and energy this Spring to fighting hunger.
And even though being “sheltered in place” is hampering those efforts, we are going to continue to do our part. Especially now, when people are out of work, unable to pay their bills, and having to choose between medicine, food, and rent, helping to fight hunger is more important than ever before. So if you’re out and about running essential errands and want to drop off food for the Alameda County Food Bank, feel free to drop it off outside the church doors and I’ll put it in the two huge drums we have in the entryway. Or you can donate directly to the church and I will go and buy canned goods and food on a grocery run to fill up the barrels. Just let us know that the money is to be used for the Alameda County Food Bank and 100% will go directly to help our efforts. We’re also sponsoring a team in the Berkeley Virtual CROP Walk! This is a wonderful organization under the Church World Services banner dedicated to fighting hunger and poverty worldwide, and you can help out in two ways. First, you can donate money to our team by going online to Berkeley CROP Walk and looking for Team BMUC or by following the link in our events page or on our website. Second, you can take a selfie of yourself walking and post it on Facebook on the CROP Walk page and let them see your virtual support.
We’re also looking for ways to keep connected, especially with our elderly folks in the church.
Join our K.I.T. Team (Keep In Touch) by volunteering to call or write to those who would enjoy a friendly voice or a handwritten note. Lee Marrs came up with this idea and we’re sort of running with it in a bunch of different directions. Our Congregational Care Ministers wanted to be sure to keep in touch with those on our care list, and we thought we might need to expand that list. So if you’d like to help us, just let me know and I’ll make sure to put you on our team. Or if you know of someone we should include who would like a phone call or letter, please let us know that, too. And for those of you on social media, we’re going to be starting a Wednesday Night Social Hour on ZOOM as a way for us all to stay connected regularly. Open to anyone who wants to join, I’ll send out a link every week to remind you all, but I hope you’ll come just to chat and check in so we can see how you’re doing. My wife Cassie thought it would be fun to do something like this to help us stay in touch and to let each other know what’s going on.
In this challenging time, it’s going to take more effort to be the people of God.
We’ll have to be more creative. We’ll have to be more intentional. We’ll have to reach out in new and different ways. But it’s important for us to continue to be the hope for the world by being the Body of Christ in the world today. Because hope is the fuel; that will get us through this crisis. Hope is the fuel that will push us through in those days when it gets lonely or frustrating. Hope will help us fight when our bodies are tired or sick. Hope will see us through. Let us be the hope for the our own little corner of the world today.
When it comes to Emma, some might say I’m a little overprotective.
Now I’ve seen helicopter parents and I’m not quite there, but to say I’m…cautious would be fair. It’s also possible I’ve seen the movie Taken just one too many times. I’ve got that Liam Neeson speech at the ready. “I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.” Obviously, I hope I never have to use that speech, but the movie represents my biggest nightmare, especially when Emma was younger. So you can imagine the horror I felt watching her being taken away from me by a rogue school bus!
It was in third grade when Emma was coming home from Immanuel Elementary. We thought it would be fun for Emma to take the school bus once in a while. She was supposed to be dropped off at 3:15pm on the #6 bus. She had only taken the bus home a few times so we were still nervous about it. She was the only one getting off at her stop so we wanted to be sure to always be there for her. This one afternoon in particular Cassie and I both went to pick her up. 3:15 came and went. 3:16. 3:17. When 3:18 came around we started to wonder if we had the right stop. If maybe they got there early. But then to our relief, the #6 bus came…and WENT! It didn’t stop!!! All over again we wondered what to do. Did we get the wrong bus number? That bus wouldn’t stop until it hit the next town over which was more than 30 minutes away and we had no idea where it would drop the kids off. We decided to chase the bus. Driving like a mad man, speeding at 80mph in a 55mph zone, we honked and waved and tried everything we could to catch the bus driver’s attention. It was like a suburban version of Mission: Impossible. Cassie in the meantime is trying to call the school or anyone who might have answers, but to no avail. The bus driver finally noticed us about and pulled over. I jumped out of the car and raced to the door, and as it opened, there was Emma’s smiling face as she hopped out safe and sound. I gave her a big hug and I was smiling from ear to ear. The driver told us he just completely forgot about Emma’s stop and while I would normally be freaking out, I was just so happy to have Emma I didn’t even care. That was the last day Emma took the bus.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like to find Emma safe and sound.
The relief, the joy, the happiness all at once. When you’ve found something precious you thought was lost, it’s indescribable how amazing it feels. And it doesn’t have to be someone who is physically lost. It could be someone close to you who lost their way. Maybe they’re in a bad relationship or engaged in addictive behavior or seem to be meandering through life and then suddenly things change for the better. Some revelation helps them to turn their life around and this wave of relief and joy washes over you. It could be a precious object you found. A ring that belonged to your mother, a watch your wife gave you on your anniversary, a favorite toy that got left behind. But that feeling you get when something lost gets found is simply amazing. And that’s the joy Jesus shares with the disciples in our passage this morning.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
1Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4″Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
To Jesus, one lost sheep was more important than the ninety-nine who were found.
It’s not because Jesus didn’t care about the 99, but instead he knew they were safe. A shepherd could leave the flock because together they would look out for each other, but the lost sheep was all on its own. It had no protection, it didn’t have any direction, and it was in constant danger from predators. A good shepherd felt safe leaving the flock behind and instead could focus on those who had wandered off. Now imagine applying the same thought process to God’s church and Jesus’ message is a call for us to do the same, to focus not on the found but on the lost. To help those who don’t know a life with Christ to embrace that life. When people refer to the “lost” it’s not a judgment on them, but an indictment on us. WE could have done more. WE should have done better. WE haven’t done OUR part. We want to avoid becoming like the Pharisees during Jesus’ time who wouldn’t dream of associating with sinners lest their reputations become tarnished or were afraid they might fall victim to that “sinful” crowd. In their mind, sinners chose their lifestyle and that’s their fault. They should have known better. So to associate with people like them would make you unclean. They left it up to the sinners to come and make peace with God. But Jesus never saw it that way. Instead, Jesus saw it as our responsibility to help others to know God and show them what a life with Christ could be like.
The problem with the Pharisees was they saw the church as a holy site to be preserved.
But that isn’t the case. The church is a field office for God. It’s the hub of action for God’s work in the world. Or to put it in more familiar terms, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. The Pharisees and often many people today look at the church as a place that preserves their traditions and their way of worship. They see it as a relic where time often stands still. And the Pharisees were awesome at this. They obeyed every law. They knew them by heart. They studied them over and over, and in the process they forgot the spirit behind the law and instead stuck to the letter of it. But God meant for the church to be an ever-changing, ever-evolving dynamic community designed to adapt to the world around it to preserve the spirit of God’s intent – to love the world in a way that reflects the love of Christ. We are the center of operations for God, Inc.! And now more than ever it’s important to keep that in mind. Because when we stop doing the WORK of the church and instead worry about the WALLS of the church, we have become like the Pharisees – observers but not believers.
In the past, a church simply needed to open its doors and people would come.
There wasn’t this great NEED to go out in search of the lost, because the church was the social hub of the community. People would come to us, whether they believed in Jesus or not. All the church needed to do was host some dinner or some program and people would come. They would come and experience this community of Christians and hopefully many of them would stick around to find out more. But the paradigm has shifted. We cannot afford to be so isolated. People don’t NEED the church to be the social hub of the community. Instead they have cell phones and soccer games and Starbucks to fill that need. The church used to be the champion of social justice, but you don’t NEED the church to champion social justice because there are as many organizations as there are causes to do that for us. The church used to champion social welfare, but today there are tons of organizations who care for those in need. The church is now only one of many options and usually not the best one. So we don’t often even get the chance to make an impact on people the way we used to because the entire paradigm of church is different. How can we show them the love of God if they don’t even come through the door? The answer is simple. We need to go to them.
People see the church as self-centered.
Too self-involved. Too focused on itself and not on the concerns of the world. The perception of the church as a museum is one held on both sides of the walls. And it’s one of the reasons people have left the church. They just don’t see us as relevant any longer. How can we turn that around? Are we willing to serve people where they are and open the doors to the church in a new way? Can we leave our comfort zone and engage the world on the front lines instead of from the safety of our walls? It’s a tough thing to consider, but one that is important if we are to rethink church for the 21st century. But there is so much work to be done. As much now as there ever has been. And if we could do our part to help others know the love of God in a real and meaningful way, if we can impact the lives of the people around us by connecting people to Christ and to have the peace that comes from a deepening faith, think of how much rejoicing there would be! Think of how much of a difference we could make for God and for our little corner of the world. But it all starts with us.
Have you ever seen Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?
If you haven’t guessed, the whole movie is about the search for Spock. The movie opens with his death and his friends believe they’ve seen the last of him, but when they discover there might be a chance to save his soul, they risk everything to do it. They risk their careers, their lives, and their ship on just the chance they might bring him back. And they pretty much lose everything. But at the end, Spock is made whole. He still has some memory loss, but he’s on the road to recovery and he approaches his friend, Kirk, and asks him why he did it – why did he risk everything just for him? And Kirk says to him, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. There are times in this world where the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. There are times when we all must step out of our comfort zone and do what’s needed. Because the world is filled with busses that need to be chased, with sheep that need to be found, and Vulcans that need their friends.
I am a pastor, but don’t tell anyone.
I don’t always like to tell people what I do. It’s not that I’m embarrassed. I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I think the only way it could get better is if I was the pastor of Disneyland UMC. It’s just that people act differently around a pastor than they do when they’re around people who aren’t a pastor. And it’s not like it’s a question you can avoid. When two people meet for the first time, the second question out of their mouth is usually, “So what do you do?” I can’t LIE! It’s in the pastor rulebook. But you can almost FEEL the flow of conversation take a sharp right turn when you say, “I’m a pastor.” Suddenly, they stand up straighter and talk more carefully. I hear the word “sorry” a lot. Either for a swear word they just used or as an apology for not coming to church as if I might rat them out. “Gotta keep an eye on Jane over here, Lord. She doesn’t go to church.” The reasons why they’ve missed since their graduation run the gamut of excuses. From “I usually have to work on Sundays” to “It’s the only day off I get all week.” I understand the “work on Sundays” reason. Our society today doesn’t reserve a day of Sabbath like we used to. But I guess people feel that if it’s your only day off you shouldn’t have to spend it with Jesus.
It’s sad though that people look at it as a chore rather than something to look forward to.
Because they’re right – they shouldn’t HAVE to go to church. I would hope they would WANT to go to church. But if the statistics tell us anything, a lot fewer people WANT to come to church. Most people aren’t sitting in a pew somewhere on Sunday morning. Only about 18% of Americans attend church on any given week. But the problem is deeper than that. Not only do they not attend church, they don’t even belong to a church any more. More and more people are considering themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” meaning they don’t identify with any particular religion or denomination. From 2007 to 2014, that number has gone up significantly from about 16% to 23%. The Pew Research Group calls this phenomenon the “rise of the nones.” That’s because when asked what religion this group ascribes to they answer “none.” That 23% represents about 75 million people. 75 million “nones.” Interestingly, though about 72% of them say they believe in God. 72%! You might think with that many “nones” we would be looking at the growth of a new atheism or more agnostics, but most of them still believe in God. Instead, they call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” But why?
The reasons they are “spiritual but not religious” come in a wide-range of answers.
Almost all of them have to do with the church letting people down. Whether it’s hypocrisy, exclusion, being judgmental, too political, or whatever other reason, they perceive the church has having let them down. And don’t get me wrong, we probably have. I don’t know of a pastor who doesn’t have horror stories about a dysfunctional church and I don’t know a congregation that hasn’t come across its share of incompetent pastors. But does that mean we shouldn’t have “church” because we haven’t got it right? Now, God did create the church based on Peter. Peter, the exceptionally flawed guy who pulled out a sword when Jesus wanted peace. Peter, the guy who denied Christ three times after swearing he would never deny Christ. It was this Peter that Jesus centered the church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” We might just want to ask, “Really, Jesus? With this guy in charge?” But God didn’t make a mistake. For all of Peter’s faults, Peter understood and knew who Jesus was. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, it was only Peter who said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Then later, after Jesus is resurrected and appears to the disciples while they are fishing, it is only Peter who jumps out of the boat and runs to Jesus. And it is to Peter that Jesus asks the famous three questions and we will share that together this morning.
15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep…”
Three times, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”
And three times Peter answers, “You know that I love you.” At first glance, you might think “Why is Jesus pestering Peter by asking him the same question over and over? Is he rubbing it in because Peter denied him three times?” But this is when it matters that you know a little Greek (or at least read a really good concordance). Jesus uses a different word for love the first two times. When he asks Peter the question, “Do you love me?” he uses the Greek word agape, an unconditional love – a love deeper than any other kind, but Peter responds each time by using the Greek phileo meaning more of a friendship or brotherly love. They both are saying “love” but with completely different meaning. It must be so disheartening for Jesus that Peter can’t even SAY he has agape love for him, so the third time Jesus asks, he stops using the word agape and instead comes down to Peter’s level and uses the word phileo and Peter is hurt by this. Why? I don’t know. What did Peter expect? He asked you two times in a row Peter! If you didn’t know the difference in translation of the word for “love” you might think Peter was hurt because Jesus had to ask him three times, but instead we know it’s because Jesus came down to his level. Peter must be hurt not from Jesus but from his own inability to love the way Christ loved him. Still, Christ builds the church with Peter as its foundation because Peter is fallible but willing.
That’s what it means to be the church.
To be fallible but willing. Willing to stick it out. Willing to work on making things better. Willing to grow in our faith. We might mess up. We probably will make mistakes. But if we keep God at the center of our lives and our community we can help to grow the Kingdom of God. People who say they are “spiritual but not religious” are often saying they don’t need anyone else to know God. But some of the most meaningful experiences we will ever have with God come from being part of a community working together to grow in faith and to reach out to the world. Pastor Lillian Daniel said it very well when she said, “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”
Honestly, I used to think I didn’t need the church.
I completely understand the “spiritual but not religious” attitude because it used to be mine. But I’ve learned that despite all of its faults, people do need the church. Not as an afterthought. Not as a “backup plan.” But we need to be engaged in the life of the church on a regular basis. It helps us to grow deeper in our own faith and gives us opportunities that only come from working together. And there is a comfort and a strength from being in community. When push comes to shove, when a person has their faith truly tested, it isn’t the sunset that’s going to comfort them. It isn’t the beach that’s going to cook them a tuna casserole. And it isn’t the forest that will pray for them and hold their hand. It’s going to be real people who love God. We are not perfect. We will make mistakes. And to expect anything different is to expect something unrealistic. But Jesus knew what he was doing when he built the church upon the rock of St. Peter. Jesus knew this fallible human being would give us hope that despite our faults, Jesus believes in us. I also believe that God knows how much we need one another and it is for that reason we need the church. Not this building or those pews or the altar, but the church, the body of Christ. And I also believe that while the “spiritual but not religious” people are missing out on something wonderful, we have to do a better job of convincing them there is something they are missing out on. During this period of Lent we will examine the different ways we can do a better job of brightening the world for those who honestly seek God and can’t find Him in the church. Please consider who you might invite to join us on this journey together. Make it a goal to ask someone who may need some of the love of Christ in their life to church on Easter Sunday. And at the end of it all, we will have a chance to celebrate the most wonderful event in all of Christendom – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Food can trigger fond memories.
When I was growing up, I loved my dad’s cooking. My mom was the master chef in the house and I loved her cooking, too. But when my dad cooked it was a treat because he made different stuff from my mom and didn’t cook as often, so it was an adventure to see what would be served next. He still makes the best salmon ever. I loved it. The way he would get the skin nice and crispy and full of flavor. It was delicious. Another one of my favorites was shoyu weenies. So simple and yet so good. We would eat it with a little fried rice my dad would make to go along with it by adding just a touch of soy sauce to last night’s leftover rice and letting it fry up in the oil left behind by the weenies. My sister Karen and I thought it was awesome! Who would have thought to put shoyu and weenies together? But then one day I was listening to NPR and heard a story about food in the internment camps, and suddenly it hit me that foods like shoyu weenies had their roots in camp life. With fish and fresh meat not available in the camps, my dad’s family and other’s like his often had to make do with whatever they were given – often hot dogs, spam, and other processed food. Somehow, they used these products in ways that resembled the foods they loved. Shoyu weenies, Weenie Royale, and spam musubi all came from the foods they had available, and the taste for it stayed with him as he became a father and now he’s passed them on to me.
I am amazed at the resourcefulness of the people who had to endure camp life.
They found ways to make sake, create art, and how to make beautiful dressers out of discarded fruit boxes. When my grandfather passed away, we found the side of an old orange crate in his bedroom and wondered why in the world he would have this. But when we turned it over, there was a beautiful carving of a fish flying out of the water. I remember when we found it after he passed away and thinking that my grandfather had some hidden talent I never knew about. What people can do with so little is a source of inspiration. The spirit of the Japanese people went beyond simply what they call shigata-ga-nai, a sense of acceptance with resignation. They turned their circumstances into an opportunity to show the world that despite the indignation and humiliation they endured, they could rise above it and wouldn’t let this define them. Many Japanese Christian pastors encouraged their congregations to do more than simply suffer in silence, but to show the true heart of Christianity. Rev. Hideo Hashimoto of the Fresno Japanese Methodist Church told his congregation in a sermon he gave on May 10, 1942 – “In the camps, cooperation will not only be highly desirable, it will be the absolute minimal requirement, even to eat and sleep. This is a great opportunity to prove that Christianity works and the Christian spirit alone works. If it doesn’t work in the Centers, it will not work anywhere. For that very reason, Christians are on trial. This is the testing of our faith.” Rev. John Yamazaki of the Japanese Episcopal Church in Los Angeles shared in his Easter message that year, “In a sense, this is our Calvary, and we must be willing to say: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” We must also try, with Him, to say: “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” But that is not all. As Jesus the Christ had His resurrection from the dark tomb, so may it be with us. We shall have our Easter and be triumphant.”
It is in that Christian spirit of love and inspiration we share in our reading this morning.
In the Bible, light is symbolic of Christ and appears over and over throughout Scripture. We are called to be the “people of the light” (Luke 16:8) and Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And it is this light that we are to share with everyone.
14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven…”
We are called to be the people of the light.
In EVERY circumstance. No matter how difficult or how daunting, no matter how strenuous or tough, we are the light of the world. But it can be hard to be the light, to be one of those who can turn the other cheek, to forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times – it can be so hard. And we often forget that THIS is the kind of people God wants us to be. When we are wronged, when we are hurt, when we are threatened, we are tempted to react in kind, to give an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but Jesus tells us we need to rise above that. That we need to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” We see examples of this all throughout the Bible. Joseph, the guy with the Technicolor dreamcoat, was sold into slavery by his own brothers and yet his faithfulness to God, his ability to be a light in the darkness, convinced Pharaoh to make him his right-hand man and in turn save his family and the people of God. Daniel and his friends were taken forcibly by King Nebuchadnezzar to serve in the royal courts and were told they must eat the food and wine they were given. But this would violate God’s call on their lives, so Daniel choose instead to follow God and his example to be the light in a time of darkness eventually convinced the King that the God Daniel followed was indeed the “God of gods and the Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). So many of these stories reflect the Japanese-American experience during the war that we are taught even in captivity, even under the rule of strangers, even when persecuted in our own land, Christians are called upon to be the people of light – to stand out amongst the crowd, not as a way of bringing glory to themselves, but by bringing glory to God by our actions.
We must be the people of the light.
And it doesn’t matter which side of the fence we stand on, this is the call God pours into us. Some of the most amazing and heart-warming stories I have heard over the years have been ABOUT the people on the other side of the barbed wire fences, who stood alongside their Japanese-American brothers and sisters and did whatever they could to help them. People who saw there was a grave injustice being done and decided to do something about it. One of those people was Dr. Frank Herron Smith. He was the superintendent of the Pacific Japanese Provisional Conference in the Methodist church at the time of the war. When I interviewed Rev. Lloyd Wake for my master’s thesis he shared with me Dr. Smith was a great influence on him. That he, “not only preached about justice and love, but he lived it.” Dr. Smith was said to have shishi no koe – the voice of a lion – and he used that voice to speak on behalf of the Japanese people at every turn; writing letters, standing up at conferences, and giving a voice to a people who had no voice. During the war, he tirelessly went from church to church, coordinating the efforts of volunteer missionaries who helped turn many of the churches into storage facilities so that families wouldn’t have to get rid of all of their belongings. He would manage the various properties, maintain the parsonages, and when insurance companies decided to drop their coverage of the churches, Dr. Smith mortgaged his own home to help cover the costs. He was unkindly called “the white Jap” because of his passion and love for the Japanese-Americans under his care, but to those who knew him, they called him “Smith-san.” Bishop Sano shared this story about Dr. Smith when I had the chance to first meet him. He said, “…Dr. Smith made the rounds visiting us in the camps. He wore himself out. One of the hallowed places in the spread of this nation is a hotel and a bus station…I have visited in Cheyenne, WY. He slept in the lounge of the hotel on a chair because “there was no room for him in the inn.” Next morning, he walked across the street to board a Greyhound bus… When the janitor came early the next morning to clean up the bus station, he found Dr. Smith on the floor. He had suffered a stroke… No matter how much hysteria and hate I experience, it was memories like this that saved my soul.” These are the kind of stories that bring the light of Christ to us and serve as an example of what it means to be a Christian.
My dad was very young when he, my grandparents, my uncle and aunt went to the camps.
But he was old enough to remember what life was like there and I know those experiences have added to the person he is today. I know he grew up having his ethnicity thrown in his face as if it were something he should be ashamed of. And despite the fact that my dad owned nothing but American cars until I was in high school – I mean we drove a huge Buick century that was built like a tank and got about three miles to the gallon. Despite the fact that he served in the United States Navy, despite the fact that his best friends were of all different ethnicities including a bald white man that we knew of as Uncle Dan, he was still called “jap” and “nip” by people who didn’t know him. You know how I found out that those were racist words? We were in the store when I was little and instead of getting the Cheez-Its that we normally buy, I picked up a box of Cheese Nips because I was curious if they tasted any different. They looked the same. So I brought the box over to my dad, and he told me to put them back. He said we would never buy those because of what that word meant. So I put them back. Instead we bought Cheez-Its and Tid Bits and Nacho Cheese Doritos, but never Cheese Nips. And then one day, Cassie, the girls, and I went to visit my parents, and sitting on the kitchen counter was a big ol’ tub of Cheese Nips. The kind you get at Costco. I looked at my mom and said, “What is going on here? I thought Dad said never to buy these things.” And she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, I guess he’s over it.” And it gives me hope that all wounds can be healed no matter how deep. That God is working in all of us to make us one people. But it still takes people like you and me who remember what has happened in the past and prevent it from happening tomorrow. It takes people like you and me to be a light unto the darkness that we may point toward the God that created us and show the world what it means to be a Christian. I pray we have the strength of those who lived through life in the camps. I pray that we have the gaman, the fortitude, to endure as they have. And I pray that we never forget the lessons of those days, that we can become beacons in the community for love and justice and that in the spirit of those who are our inspirations, that we do all we can to honor their past by living a life of honor in the present.
Have you ever heard of the seven stages of the married cold?
In your 1st year of marriage, if your loving spouse gets sick, you would probably say with all sincerity – “Oh, sweetie pie, I’m really worried about those nasty sniffles you have! There’s no telling what that could turn into with all the strep that’s been going around. I’m going to take you right down to the hospital and have you admitted for a couple days of rest. I know the food is lousy there, so I’m going to bring you takeout from your favorite restaurant. I’ve already arranged it with the head nurse.”
In your 2nd year of marriage, if your spouse gets sick, you still show much loving concern – “Listen, honey, I don’t like the sound of that cough. I called the doc and he’s going to stop by here and take a look at you. Why don’t you just go on to bed and get the rest you need?”
In the 3rd year, you say – “Maybe you better go lie down, darling. When you feel lousy you need the rest. I’ll bring you something. Do we have any canned soup around here?”
By the 4th year, you say with love – “No sense wearing yourself out when you’re under the weather. When you finish those dishes and the kids’ baths and get them to bed, you ought to go to bed yourself!”
5th year – “Why don’t you take a couple aspirin?
6th year – “You oughta go gargle or something, instead of sitting around barking like a dog!”
And by the 7th year, you turn to the love of your life and say – “For Pete’s sake, stop sneezing. Are you trying to give me pneumonia? You’d better pick up some tissues while you’re at the store.”
If this isn’t you and your spouse, odds are you probably know someone just like this. Most of us consider this to be the natural progression of a love relationship. As we spend more and more time together, we tend to lose not only the fire and passion of our early days, but also that “other-centered” focus that is pretty typical at the beginning. But have you ever wished that it wasn’t that way? Have you ever wondered if you could rekindle that intimacy? More time doesn’t have to equal less passion. More time doesn’t have to equal less passion. How we treat each other is a choice we make everyday. It comes naturally at the beginning to be so “other-centered” because we are so busy trying to convince the other person to stay with us. We are more sensitive, more thoughtful, more willing to compromise, but once we have been together for a while all those things seem to start to fade. And when the relationship starts to get a little dull around the edges, when it isn’t so sparkly new and shining bright, we tend to dump it instead of work on it. In our disposable lifestyles, we tend to have disposable relationships.
Why do you think that is?
Why are we willing to dump something just because it isn’t working the way we expect it too? Obviously, if you decide to get married, you don’t sit there with the intention it’s going to end. Most people think of marriage as a lifelong commitment otherwise why bother? Yet somehow, we chuck it all out the window pretty quickly. Like anything worthwhile, a love that lasts a lifetime takes work and time and effort. It may not be that fiery, passionate love we had at the beginning, but a love that nourishes us and envelopes us with security and hope. Andy Stanley put it pretty succinctly, “Falling in love requires a pulse, but staying in love requires a plan.” Falling in love requires a pulse, but staying in love requires a plan. And guess what? God has a plan. If you’ve got your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please open them up to Philippians chapter 2 beginning with verse 1. Philippians 2:1. In this letter to the church at Philippi, Paul is writing to them to give them encouragement to keep on growing in Christ. Apparently, Paul had spent a lot of time in Philippi and now that he’s been thrown in prison, he’s worried that they’ll forget the lessons of Christ as they worry about what will happen to them so he’s writing this to bolster their confidence and to remind them of how Christ would have them behave toward one another. This model of behavior isn’t just for churches, but for our everyday lives and in our marriages as well and this is where we pick up in our reading.
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
This is God’s recipe for a healthy relationship.
Take equal parts humility and equal parts concern for others and mix it together and you have the perfect recipe for a healthy relationship. Paul reminds us that even Jesus, Jesus who is by his nature God on Earth, even Jesus didn’t take advantage of who he was to make us bend to his will. Instead, Jesus, the creator and most powerful person in the universe, took on the attitude of a servant because he wanted to model for us the kind of life we could live if we just listened to God. God gives us these life lessons to make our lives better. But it does take faith to do it. Faith not only in God that what he says is true, but faith in one another. It also takes conscious effort. It’s not something that comes naturally to us, so we have to actively do these things. We have to actively act in humility, to think of our partner more than ourselves, to react not in haste but in kindness, to take the attitude of a servant. To use another Andy quote, we have to learn to make love a verb. We have to learn to make love a verb. Love is a choice we make every day and if we ignore that choice we will see the seven stages of the married cold become a reality in our relationships. But if we DO actively choose to love one another, to think of them before ourselves, we can have the healthy, loving relationship we so desire.
There is always a gap between our expectations and our reality.
It’s how we fill that gap that makes all the difference in the world. The most successful couples, the ones who report the most happiness, are the ones who fill that gap with the best of expectations. They believe the best about their spouses, even when they are wrong. They CHOOSE to believe the best even though it’s likely not to be true. It’s that positive attitude that ends up inspiring their significant other to become the best partner they can be and in turn give them the relationship they always hoped for. There’s a book I’ve read that has some great ideas how you can put your spouse or significant other above yourself. It’s called The Love Dare. Some of you may have heard of it. It was a big deal about ten years ago, but the lessons and suggestions it has are still relevant today. But you don’t even need a book to do this. All you need is the willingness to put others’ needs before your own. Think of how incredible of a world this would be if everyone thought of other people’s needs more than their own. Challenge yourself this week to do something unexpected for those that you love. Put their needs, their wants, and their desires above your own and see how that can brighten up their day.
 Found in different sermon illustrations and on the Internet.
 From Andy Stanley’s Staying In Love sermon series