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Hungry for Community

Scripture: James 2:1-13

In these past several months of pandemic, we have all discovered anew how important it is to be in community.

Right now, even as we gather virtually, there are people from all walks of life and all faith journeys who are keeping our neighborhoods together - from doctors and nurses going in each day to care for COVID-19 positive patients - to leaders working phones and meetings to try to get resources to people in need - to teachers and administrative staff at school preparing lessons for remote learning - to the easily overlooked delivery drivers making sure groceries are picked up and dropped at doorsteps. The pandemic reveals in so many ways how we need each other.
According to an article on CNN’s website, even though we have found many ways to be resilient in this time, the effects of limiting our social interaction and staying home, especially for those of us with existing health conditions, has worn us down. “A Census Bureau survey found that one in three Americans are now reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety — more than three times the rate from a similar survey conducted in the first half of 2019.” Some crisis hotlines have seen a dramatic increase in calls for help. Without being able to see friends and family except through virtual means, we can feel lonely and disconnected, depleted and sad.

Brandon Robertson, in his book Inclusion, argues that human beings are wired for connection - in this way, we resemble our Creator who we often describe in our worship as Trinity - Creator, Spirit, Son - three in one - divine community. God created us in community, and we desire community with God and with each other.

So, when we are unable to experience community, there is a hole within us, a deep hunger that is left unfulfilled. Sure, some of us too have this problem made worse because we have been hurt by the communities around us - we have been hurt by people who say they love us and care for us. Many have been wounded deeply by their families simply because the choices they have made or because of who they are. There are many in our neighborhood who are lonely and do not see a church as a place to turn for support, because of what Christians have said and done in public and private to them.

Yes, we tend to find community in unusual ways in this internet age, but are screen names and discussion forums really an adequate substitution for honest to goodness presence, being together and sharing of our lives?

Yes, some of us have found outlets with like-minded groups of people through sports, work, and hobbies - but are we truly seen and known in these circles of acquaintances?

We are hungry for community, knowing it won’t solve all of our problems, but recognizing that without it we are missing something that we desperately need to feel whole.

How are followers of Jesus called to respond to that hunger for community?

What might that mean for University Christian Church?

In the Epistle of James, we find words that are deeply rooted in the Jewish faith and the tradition of Jesus Christ. James is a fun letter to read, because it is straightforward, to the point, and prescriptive. And it is clearly speaking about the challenges of being community.

James describes a scenario that hits home very easily for people who have experience with church - favoritism. He describes a rich person, wearing a nice golden robe, golden rings, and maybe even the latest pair of Nike Jordan Ones, stepping into the synagogue/worship space and having the red carpet rolled out for them. The greeters take their coats and with excitement lead them to the best seat in the house. But when someone who is poor arrives to worship, one who has just gotten a moment free after a long and grueling day of labor with dirt-stained hands and worn clothes, they are coldly told to grab a stool at the back and stay out of sight.

He challenges the early church to live up to their call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verse 8)

This is what he writes is the royal law, pointing back to Leviticus 19:18, an important verse which says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

This was a core teaching and practice of Jesus - who made neighbor an even harder category to love when he commanded his disciples to love their enemies.

To be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, was to truly love your neighbor. When a rich person was welcomed with great enthusiasm but the poor person was dismissed, the church failed its call to embody that commandment. We become transgressors of the law.

But James doesn’t stop there - he adds his own little critique of the power dynamics in play. He points out how the rich person, the one who is received with honor, is actually the one who deserves the cold treatment. It’s the rich person who has harmed his community, who has neglected the poor, who has dragged fellow Christians into court, who has cheated and ridiculed the name of the Lord by his actions. Why do they get special treatment? Just because their bank account is full?

Maybe if we think about it, we can imagine a time or two that this may have happened in our own church and maybe even happened to us.

I know plenty of churches get real excited when a young person walks in the door and we miss the grieving widow in the back who deserves as much attention.

I know plenty of churches mistake success in life with a successful prayer life, appointing those who are generous in giving to positions of leadership which require generous humility and wisdom.

I know plenty of churches who have been enamored by those with political power and have overlooked those who are being crushed by the very policies of those in power.
Loving your neighbor is the central defining mark of what it means to be a faithful community for James. We as the church fail in that call when we reproduce hierarchies that we see in the world, when even in our faith communities we exalt some to VIP status. Rather, those who are vulnerable and those at the bottom of our economic system, the very ones Jesus surrounded himself in ministry, are the ones God intends to be at the heart of the kingdom.

James is not saying that the rich aren’t welcome - rather, part of our call as a Christian community is to hold the most vulnerable, the poor, women, widows, and orphans at the center. We are to protect them. We are to fight for them. And we are to know Jesus among them.

Certainly, here at University Christian Church, some of us have done well in this life. Some of us are at the bottom looking up. I believe we embody what James is calling when we tear down the walls that separate those two groups, not preferring one over the other, but reminding all of us that Jesus came that the oppressed might go free.

Even in this past week, we have heard the name of Breonna Taylor. We have been in horror to hear the experiences of immigrant women who allegedly had forced hysterectomies while in custody by our government. We recognize that creating a world where the vulnerable, where the poor, where the hurting are valued and cared for is as revenant as it was in the early church as it is today.

How prophetic would the church be if we created more opportunities for each of us, no matter our walk in life, to truly hear and see each other?

What would we witness to the world?

Might we begin to offer something that would fill the hunger for community so many share?

As your pastor, I know my next step is to listen to you.

How can we help you journey through your loneliness, through your sadness, and all the ways you feel disconnected from friends and family? How can I listen? How can the elders of our church listen to what you are going through?

If we need to do more Zoom calls, we can do more Zoom calls.

If we need to go for socially distanced walks through the parks as the leaves change, we can do more of that.

This past week, my kids suddenly decided that they wanted to go skateboarding more. Over the past few months, I rarely went skating, even though it is such a positive experience for me. So when my kids drag me out and we hit one of our local skateparks like Sunnyside, I saw a glimpse again of just how hungry we are all for connection. The skate park remains a place that give me glimpses of what life can be like for all of us - a place where young and old gather and we (most of the time) encourage each other. We give each other permission to enjoy our sport, no matter our skill level or age, whether we just want to cruise around or try death defying stunts, whether we are a beginner or have been doing this a lot.

Maybe church has an opportunity during this pandemic to learn some new tricks of our own and become that kind of people, where we receive each other with grace, care for those who need extra time, and truly love each other as Christ calls us.

Thanks be to God.

(posted 11/25/20)

Hungry for Healing

Scripture: Luke 18:35-43

With our lives disrupted by this pandemic called COVID-19, many of us are watching with anticipation for a vaccine that could potentially save lives and return us to some kind of normal.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get a shot so we can return to something of the life we used to know? Wouldn’t it be great to go grocery shopping without having to duck and weave around people? Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to drop our kids off at school again, away from home, for several hours each day?

According to a website called the History of Vaccines, a vaccine typically takes 10-15 years of development, with scientists first trying to understand a particular virus and learn how to reliably develop an antigen from the disease. The antigen itself is what prevents the disease, giving our bodies a means to fight off the virus. But to get to that point, not only must they create the antigen, scientists and researchers must test it, making sure it works safely in humans without damaging side effects. And then make enough to get to a widely available to people like us. In recent weeks, the FDA has been instructed to waive a lot of steps in order to speed up the process, but it may still take months to years before everyone has access to a safe, effective vaccine against this pandemic.

I do have hope that a vaccine will be in our future for COVID-19 - vaccines of all kinds have already saved millions of lives from diseases that once preyed upon the vulnerable.

But other than COVID-19, wouldn’t it be amazing if we had other kinds of vaccines?
- Vaccines that inoculate us against the deadly effects of racism
- Vaccines that prevent the spread of hatred against people who may seem different to us
- Vaccines that eliminate violence against women
- Vaccines that can topple the deep walls of division that are turn neighbors against neighbors

We are hungry for a healing in this time of anxiety, fear, and injustice - ready for wholeness for our nation, for our world, and especially for our minds, bodies, and souls.

Where, O God, is a vaccine that can heal that sickness?

Jesus was a healer, although as far as we know, he did not develop vaccines. His healing stories remind us that Jesus had the power to mend wounds and hurting bodies. Healing stories in the Gospels are some of my favorite stories to try to understand what it means to follow Jesus. When I was a young Christian, the healing stories were simply remarkable for what they said about Jesus and his ability - I wish I could alleviate the physical diseases and conditions of my loved ones and friends.

But as I have gotten older, I have noticed that the healing stories aren’t about Jesus showing off power. His healing acts give us a vision of God’s future for us, for all of us.

In our scripture today, Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jericho. This city has deep significance in our sacred stories - for we remember in the Book of Joshua how the people of God were commanded to march around the city until the walls came tumbling down. But Jesus, in Luke 10, also tells a story about a certain man who is going down to Jericho when he was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Two religious leaders who are supposed to live and exemplify their holy scripture see the victim but pass on by down the road without stopping to help. It is a Samaritan, a non-Jewish neighbor who stops, tends to the man’s wounds, and makes sure he is moved to a place of safety.

And so, as Jesus and his disciples draw close to Jericho, this parable comes to life. A blind man, hearing that Jesus is near, begins to shout, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The crowd has forgotten the message that Jesus had given earlier and tells this blind man to shut up. To be quiet. We can think of all of the people who are ill, who are suffering right now, who are being told to be silent. We can think of the women who have been victims of sexual violence like rape or harassment being told by powerful men to be silent. We can think of families grieving the loss of loved ones due to police brutality or street violence or broken healthcare systems being told to be silent. We can think of those asking to be treated with dignity and respect because of their sexuality or their gender identity being told to be silent.

Here, this blind man is told to be silent by those at the front - could that have been Jesus’ disciples, trying to ignore this person in need of God’s vaccine?

But Jesus stops and notices this man on the side of the road.

Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” I imagine that a hush falls over the crowd as the words come out of their Rabbi’s mouth. Doesn’t Jesus have all the answers? Doesn’t

Jesus already know this man’s needs? Jesus, however, engages this man not as a caricature or an annoyance but as someone who deserves the attention and care of the Son of God. He recognizes that this man is hungry for healing, and that hunger deserves to be heard.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man asks to “see again”. Yes, he is asking for sight to help him navigate the world, but he is also asking to be seen. Jesus sees him, hears him, and heals him.

Don’t focus on just the individual being healed, but imagine all of the family members and extended community that had likely helped care for this man all the days of his life, providing meals even when times were hard, defending him against those who judged him. They too are transformed by this encounter with Jesus. The whole community when they saw what happened praise God! They can now see too that God, through Jesus, is still on the move, ushering in new possibilities for their lives and worlds, revealing that God sees their hungers for healing and offers us a way to a transformed life not just as individuals but as a whole community.

If Jesus stopped by your front door today and looked at you, right into your eyes, and asked - “What do you want me to do for you?” - how would you answer?

What healing do you need today - for a relationship, for a physical challenge, for a spiritual wound, for the ability to see?

Think of everyone that needs to hear that question from Jesus right now.
- Like those struggling on ventilators right now, those in hospitals with COVID-19, worried about never seeing their family again…
- Like those struggling to battle cancer, even when the doctor’s head hangs low to tell them the bad news…
- Like a gay, lesbian, or transgender teenager who came out to their parents this weekend and now find themselves without a home as their misguided parents try to punish them by showing them the door…
- Like those crying out for dignity on our city streets to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be offered equal treatment under the law…
- Like those who are feeling disconnected and cut off from the people they love…
- Like those who are grieving the loss of their partners, their parents, their children, or their friends…

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

Our scripture reminds us ultimately that God is in the healing business - God is interested in our deepest needs and our deepest longings to be made whole. Perhaps our call in this time of division and disease is to stop as we proceed down to the Jerichos of our lives and listen to the cries of our neighbors and the cries of our own hearts. To take to Jesus our fear, our anxiety, and our pain, trusting that Jesus is asking us that question each day of our lives, waiting for our response, “What do you want me to do for you?”
One of the stories that came to my mind as I thought about this scripture was from a youth Sunday school class I attended in my home church in Anadarko, OK so many years ago. Our teacher was Verl Daugherty, an long time leader and incredible man who cared about us young people at the church. That morning he was talking about miracles and healing, and he asked us, “What is a miracle?”

I remember we argued a little bit about the definition, us young people who felt like we know so much about life already and a lot about God. A miracle meant it had to be God doing something out of the blue, out of nowhere, detached from anything in the world. It’s almost like we argued that miracles couldn’t happen in hospitals or through doctors or human relationship.

Verl then told his story about being diagnosed by his doctor with a rare and life-threatening condition. He had limited treatment options, the best of which included going to the Mayo Clinic up in Minnesota. Unfortunately, time was short. To have the best chance to deal with this condition, he needed to get treatment immediately and the earliest they could book him was a few months away. I know Verl and his wife and our church prayed, asking and hoping for God to move. And then - out of the blue, the Mayo Clinic called and said, “We’ve had an opening two days from now. Can you get here?”

Verl dropped everything, jumped on a plane, and made the appointment - saving his life in the process.

I remember he turned to us and asked, “Now, for me, that was a miracle.”

Miracles can sometimes look like vaccines. Like the kindness of a stranger. Like the strong leadership of one committed to changing broken systems. Like the generosity of a normal person like you and me. And especially like those moments when we truly see each other and listen to the deep hunger we have for wholeness.

I’ve invited Gladstone to play something quietly, and while he plays, I want you to quietly imagine Jesus asking you the question he asked the blind beggar that day - “What do you want me to do for you?” Offer your hurts to Jesus today and trust that Jesus sees you and listens.

(posted 10/20/20)

Hungry for Daily Bread

Scripture: John 6:1-14

Back in January, pre-COVID-19, which now seems like such a long time ago, I stood in the Church of the Multiplication by the Sea of Galilee in Israel/Palestine, the very spot where it is believed that Jesus fed more than five thousand people with just a few loaves and fish as we heard in our scripture passage today. On the chapel floor, right in front of the communion table, is a beautiful mosaic - intricately laid tile by tile - which reveals a basket of four loaves of bread and two fish. I have this same pattern on my communion plate and chalice that I purchased there and we use at home for worship.
According to the scripture we just heard, the little boy had five loaves, not 4. The mosaic then, as you stand in that sacred space, invites you to look up, to the communion table, where Jesus might have stood in the midst of worship, fifth loaf in his hands, breaking it and blessing it, before sharing it with the gathered people.
Getting to walk and explore the landscape of Jesus, his disciples, and his people, it was apparent why a miracle story like the one we heard today would have been so popular. It’s in all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark and Matthew, in fact, have it twice. And while area around the Sea of Galilee was fertile countryside, you don’t have to travel far to leave that green behind and end up in the dusty, at times desolate, rocky hillsides.
Jesus was distinctly aware of the hunger of his disciples and the community that surrounded him. They were hungry for a lot of things - they were hungry for a leader who could offer them a future free of oppression and violence. They were hungry for spiritual wisdom that gave them meaning and purpose. They were hungry for a sign that God was still acting and listening.
*And they were also just plain hungry for a meal.*
Jesus and his community lived with the day-to-day reality that one storm, one wildfire, one drought, or even one cruel decision by King Herod or Roman imperial authorities could deny the daily bread that his people needed. Life was hard, so when he taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6, he guided them to ask for daily bread, for the food they needed to get by each day, indicating God was listening to their needs.
That day on the mountainside, as the crowds swarmed after him, Jesus became aware that these people needed bread, and so he fed them - all five thousand plus, keeping in mind that besides the men there were women, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, second cousins mixed in. No one went home hungry that day.
Our world today is not that different than Jesus’ - there are so many hungry people.
Right now, according to a recent Hunger Survey from the Capital Area Food Bank, released before the pandemic, at least 1 in 10 neighbors in the Washington DC region are food insecure, meaning they “lack access to reliable, nutritious food on a regular basis”. At least 1/3 of those are children.
Add in a deadly pandemic that has swept through our country, and an estimated additional 250,000 people in just the DC area only have had to seek assistance, making those lines at local pantries and distributions long and slow.
Right now, due to COVID-19, some people still don’t know when they will get back to work or have a reliable paycheck again. Experts are worried that evictions will create a new wave of neighbors looking for places to live.
Even this weekend, at least a half a million people have been uprooted from their homes as wildfires break out on the West Coast. When it is safe, many will go back to find ashes.
Right now, friends, people are hungry - hungry for justice, hungry for change, hungry for their daily bread.
So what would Jesus have us do as his disciples?
How does Jesus’ miracle of multiplication invite us to respond?
First, we must sit with the idea that God desires to feed us. In other Gospel stories, Jesus hands the bread and fish to his disciples who then share it with the crowd. That’s pretty cool - a reminder that we are part of Jesus’ distribution network, but in the Gospel of John, Jesus hands out the food himself. **What an image.** Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, takes on the presence and care of a cafeteria cook at a local elementary school, a volunteer helping at the Day Center or Community Place Cafe, or even a caring neighbor who picks up a few extra groceries to leave on a doorstep. (Kids, don’t ever criticize the lunch lady - she might be Jesus.)
In John, miracles are called signs - they point the way or they tell us about Jesus, and so this miracle reaffirms the good news that we have a Creator who has not abandoned us or left us to misery but suffers alongside and seeks to nourish our bodies for our daily struggle.
Second, God is also concerned with our whole hunger. Later in Chapter 6, Jesus, drawing from this miracle, says to the gathered crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus is able to care for the immediate reality of a people who are hungry for today’s meal and also offer them a deeper nourishment that sates their hunger for wholeness and healing. Through Christ, there is food that will sustain his people beyond even this life.
Jesus’ mission was always looking beyond just the present - God is always working to bring transformation to a hurting, broken world.
Finally, there are always leftovers in God’s reign. At the end of the meal, baskets of bread and fish are returned to Jesus. Through the power of Christ, there is enough and then some to go around. We live in a world where things may seem scarce on the surface - if we will look deeper, we find God is providing more than enough for our needs and our neighbor’s needs.
And so if we know there will be enough, some of us might not choose to overload our plates on our first pass down the buffet line.
If we know there will be enough, some of us might invite more of our neighbors to the dinner table.
If we know there will be enough, perhaps we can reimagine how our society will operate, creating a world where no one goes to bed hungry. Can you imagine that?
Bread for the World, a Christian evangelical hunger relief organization, guides many followers of Jesus who are motivated to work toward such a world. According to their website, Christians have so often spent most of their energy in direct action - food kitchens, pantries, and other support to neighbors in need, but Christians are learning to impact policy, the laws and regulations made by our government which shapes our economy. In recent days, Christians have written their representatives and Senators to demand an expansion of food assistance, especially to families with children. Right now, kids in our county can go to local schools for free and pick up breakfast and lunch - no proof income needed, making it so easy to make sure our children have someone in their fridge. It’s saving lives and comes out of faithful followers of Jesus lifting their voices and demanding a change.
But even deeper than that, Bread for the World is linking hunger with other policies - like criminal justice reform. When a person in a community is locked up for a non-violent offense, they lose opportunities to provide for their families. It creates a cycle that makes families dependent on assistance, placing stress on the poor in our community. Add on top of that the historic reality that our criminal justice system hurts especially communities of color. If we want to imagine a world without hunger, we also must imagine a world without racism and inequality of all kinds.
What would it look like if our faith was exhibited in these ways - not just through the incredible work we do as a congregation through the Day Center, Community Place Cafe, and winter homeless shelters - but also through a growing voice to our leaders from city to county to state and federal, asking and demanding a community where no child goes to bed hungry? (I’m going to let you sit with that.)
Jesus in a miracle of sharing bread and fish gives us a glimpse of what is possible.
Our presence is needed, just like Jesus, doing the hard work of passing out brown bag lunches, contributing resources that support gift cards going to neighbors in need. Embodying God’s love for those who are hungry is a way to show up with Christ. And church, this week, you are going to hear about a special way to help us upgrade our kitchen, long overdue, so we can serve more of our neighbors to reflect Christ’s love.
But we are also called like Jesus to point to the world that God desires for us - a world where famines, hurricanes, droughts, and pandemics don’t stand a chance against our ability to share, persevere, and flourish.
One of the great apocryphal stories about our church is that when we built this building, the strong amazing women leaders of our church demanded a small kitchen. They rejected the traditional role of women spending a lot of time there, preparing meals for a hungry congregation. Rather, that rejection challenged us to see our kitchen as an extension of our mission, a shared mission. Our kitchen is not a place for one gender - it is a place for all of us who are committed to live to the way of Christ, whether that means cooking pancakes, roasting turkeys, making peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, or just scrubbing dishes.
If it was good enough for Jesus to do kitchen duty, it’s good enough for all of us.
We are hungry for our daily bread - may God answer that prayer through our church and through our lives.
Thanks be to God.

(posted 9/21/20)

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