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9-15-19 - Can Quakerism Be Saved?

Can Quakerism Be Saved?

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

September 15, 2019

 

2 Timothy 1:13-14 (MSG)

13-14 So keep at your work, this faith and love rooted in Christ, exactly as I set it out for you. It’s as sound as the day you first heard it from me. Guard this precious thing placed in your custody by the Holy Spirit who works in us.

This past summer I had the opportunity to speak at several different Quaker gatherings here in Indiana. From the annual Stoking the Fire event for Friends United Meeting to the Leadership Conference at Earlham School of Religion, each gathering afforded me the opportunity to speak on different subjects to a variety of diverse Quakers. One thing that seemed to be evident and very similar at each gathering was a deep sense of concern for the future of Quakerism. Often, I found myself among people who posed questions like, Can Quakerism be saved? or What hope is there for Quakerism, today?

Something similar also came up at one of the other events I was asked to present at this summer – our own Western Yearly Meeting Sessions in July. I was part of a panel discussion that was tasked with revisiting some of the vision and actions of earlier Friends that might compel us to rekindle some of their love and power for contemporary times. My 20-minute presentation focused on Quaker Civil Rights activists Bayard Rustin and Barrington Dunbar.  

After we all presented, they opened it for general Q&A.  Our own John Moorman asked the panel a more personal question. (Please note: I had to call John this week to try and get the exact question he asked – so here is the best we could come up with.)

What about Quakerism has been important to you and that you                            consider important to its future?

I was glad that a couple of the other presenters had the opportunity to go first, to give me time to think. As I sat looking out as part of the panel from the front of the Plainfield Meetinghouse, I wrestled with just how to answer John’s question. Honestly, there was not enough time to unpack all that I wanted to say.  As the microphone was finally passed to me. I looked up and said,

 

“What has been important to me in Quakerism

is that we don’t have to be right or have all the answers.”

 

Immediately, almost every eye in the room rose to meet mine.  Some seemed shocked while others looked quizzical or maybe even confused.  I quickly knew that what I had said, was already being interpreted, judged and categorized. 

 

A bit hesitantly, I went on to explain how that morning, a picture had shown up on my Facebook feed from a Northwest Yearly Meeting Business Session that I had attended a few years earlier. In the photo were the Clerk, Assistant Clerk, Recording Clerk, and at the time, a youth from my meeting in Silverton who was making a presentation and representing a group of several hundred passionate youth.

 

What I explained in the panel was how each of the people in that photo were Quakers that I admired and looked up to – some of them had even been mentors that had taught me the importance of not having to be right or having all the answers. Please understand – this was all while we were in the midst of some difficult battles in our Yearly Meeting about biblical authority, same-sex relationships, and even atonement theories – fun stuff to say the least, that you must know would ultimately tear us apart.  Through it all, these people had modeled and encouraged Quaker process and discernment, and always led by example in listening to their inner Light for leadings and nudgings. Our clerk alone at the time was able to convey the shear importance of minding the light and waiting on the spirit to give guidance and wisdom, and he was also able to provide a place where an answer or “being right” was not always necessary. 

 

I didn’t go much further in answering John’s question, because I sensed the room uncomfortable and not completely buying what I was saying. Over the years, I have learned that not having the answers or not being right is often too scary for many people, especially those who have been taught to rely or lean on belief systems, dogmas, and certain theologies – allowing the systems to almost believe for them instead of exploring or seeking for themselves. So, I passed the microphone on. 

 

As I have had time to process my experiences this summer and think more about the answer to John’s impromptu question, I have continued to return to the words I said that day in hopes of expanding the ideas. As a pastor who is often  sought out for the right answer, I continue to see the freedom and possibilities of not having to be right or to have the answers - especially as it pertains to one’s spiritual growth and opportunities for diverse and rich communities of dialogue and relationship. As I have been processing this, I also returned for another look at Brian McLaren’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration, which has offered me more details and ways to help explain my thoughts further – thus our Fall Sermon Series which I begin today.  [Pause]

 

Now folks, I am going to be totally honest, I believe Quakerism is more relevant today, than ever in history. This almost seems ironic to proclaim as we continue to hear of meetings being laid down by the dozens, yearly meetings splitting and suffering to survive, and division proliferating among Quakers.   

 

But let’s be honest, most of that division stems from two things: needing to be right and having the answers.

 

Brian McLaren sheds some light on this.  He says,

 

“For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs.”

 

I must say this has been true for Quakers at certain times as well. When I taught our Youth Affirmation Class, I brought with me several different Faith and Practices from around Quakerdon to peruse. There were some similarities, but a great deal of differences. Sadly, what we have labeled as our Faith and Practice has often become a stagnant and rigid system or statements or beliefs from a specific era and theological perspective rather than a fluid document that guides the understanding of our faith and practice and offers an openness to question and even makes changes over time. One of the things that convinced me to be a Quaker was that fluidity, that openness and that opportunity for change.

 

Brian goes on to be extremely honest about the outcomes and tragedies that have occurred because people have become comfortable and unmovable around their system of beliefs, he says that our systems of belief have

“…supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBTQ people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege.”

 

Now, some of these unintended consequences are evident in Quakerism as I speak, and many are even the cause of much of the suffering and division amongst us.  If we were fully honest, we might even find some of these unintended consequences within these very walls.  

 

Prior to coming to Indianapolis, I was on the front lines of some of those unintended consequences out in the Northwest. I saw lines being drawn and the following of specific beliefs alienating and even harming individuals and groups of people – especially people who refused to fall in-line or find themselves on the “correct” side. Acutally, even my own family and I were alienated and harmed by these consequences.  

 

Exploration, questioning, and discernment was stifled and sorely missing. Conversations, debates, and even biblical exegesis was replaced with doctrinal absolutes and finalities about what should be understood or considered if one was a true Christian or their brand of Quaker. This was not the Quakerism or Christianity that had convinced me. In reality, all of this became so ugly, that I didn’t even know if I wanted to be associated with Jesus or Christianity or anything that smelled of religion. Being spiritual but not religious, like a growing part of our world, was starting to appeal to me – simply because I was becoming appalled and embarrassed by those who proclaimed they were Christian and followed Jesus by allowing their systems of belief to judge, exclude, and hurt their neighbors.

 

But that was just it, I was (and am) a Quaker. This was not what my Quaker history taught or what I had come to be convinced of. I started to ask some deeper questions: Wasn’t it George Fox who reacted to the formalism and traditionalism of the established church in his day? Didn’t he place what he considered the God-given inward light above creeds and scriptures and regarded personal experience as the true source of authority?  And rather than a religion, weren’t we part of a Society of Friends who was to present the world with a new, even radical, way of living based on values like simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality?  Values that were modeled and exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Fellow Quaker minister Phil Gulley would write an entire book about living this Quaker Way just a few years after I began to ask these questions. I highly recommend his book, and yes, it is in our meeting’s library. 

 

What I was coming to realize was that Quakerism wasn’t about a set of steps to follow, dogmas to believe, rules to enforce, or hoops to jump through – but rather it was about a way of life among community, where our guiding center was our Inner Light or what early Quakers considered the Present Christ or presence of the Spirit.

 

Brian McLaren also challenged me to consider a similar shift in our faith communities today, he asked…

 

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”

 

In many ways, what he is describing is a return to Quakerism at its purest, and I believe he is getting to exactly what could actually save Quakerism. We need to rediscover our faith as a way of life again. We need, in Brian’s words, to migrate again. Remember, Quakers have been migrating from their inception. George Fox, himself, was one who migrated from the Anglican and Puritan faiths because of their controlling system of beliefs to centering on one’s Inner Light and way of life modeled by Jesus.

 

I can relate to these migratory patterns.

 

I think one of my first attempts at migrating came when I was a freshman in college. I had grown up being taught in the church that women had no place in church leadership. I soon found myself stepping out and questioning that during a small group session at my freshman initiation. Please note, my undergraduate school was a product of my church denomination who held this same belief about women. I remember the young ladies in my small group ridiculing me for being wrong and saying it was an honor to be submissive to a man God had put over her. It took several more years before I finally was able to fully migrate on this issue and come to a more egalitarian position.     

 

Another happened on my internship at a church in Oviedo, Florida, where one Sunday, a man who was suffering from Aids showed up for Sunday worship.  Again, I was taught in many of my religious circles growing up that Aids was the “gay plague” and God’s retribution for homosexual sin. I watched as my senior pastor avoided the man on Sunday morning and then literally left out the back door of the office before the man came to a scheduled meeting with the pastor during the week.  Once the man gave up waiting and exited the parking lot, the pastor quickly appeared again to vigorously scrub down every chair and doorknob in our office the man may have touched – all out of fear of getting Aids.  As an intern, I was shocked and confused but it stuck with me…This was not how Jesus approached the lepers or others with diseases in the bible? Sadly, the pastor’s response to that man with Aids would be how the majority of churches out there would respond during the entire Aids epidemic. Just a few years earlier, right here in Indiana, I remember struggling with the response of the church to Ryan White.  It had such a great impact on me, I later wrote about it being my first dark night of the soul. Too often the well-meaning church has stood firm on their condemning belief system rather than on expressing a loving way of life that would embrace or help the vulnerable.

 

‘These are just a couple examples, but I have continued to migrate over the years…

 

  • From liturgical and over-programmed worship to Quaker semi and unprogrammed worship

  • From a wrathful and punishing God to a non-violent peace-loving God

  • From exclusion of the LGBTQ community to acceptance and affirmation  

  • From biblical literalism to seeing poetry, allegory, and context

  • From fear to love

  • And so many more…some that I will share as we continue this series.

 

And in these times of questions, exploration, and migration, I have often had what Brian McLaren refers to as my “inner fundamentalist” appear and speak into my ear (kind of like the cartoons with the devil and angel – except mine is the voice of my inner-fundamentalist that would often say,

 

“Just a minute! You are not allowed to do that. Christian faith was defined once and for all by Jesus and the apostles. It is encoded in the creeds and preserved by religious leaders and institutions. It’s already fully constructed, and there’s nothing to deconstruct or reconstruct. Our generation’s duty is to hand it down faithfully, without change. Here we stand [something that growing up Lutheran was engrained in me because Luther, himself, would say it in the midst of his own migration from the Catholic faith], without apology, accommodation, or migration. Christianity must always be what it has always been.  Anything else is unorthodox, heretical, apostate, and wrong…

 

But like Brian McLaren, my inner fundamentalist also misled me. He assumed that the faith that was passed down to me from my family and my church was exactly the same treasure given by Jesus and the apostles. Brian points out that, “He didn’t realize how often through history we Christians have tampered with that original gift, how often we’ve weighed it down with baggage or suppressed some parts of it and exaggerated others, how often we’ve said the words but missed the point.”

 

And that takes me back to why I believe Quakerism is so important and needs to be saved.  Quakerism is a treasure and gift for anyone seeking, growing, spiritually forming, questioning, doubting, and yes, most importantly migrating. It offers a space where you don’t have to have the answer or be right, but can simply be a part of a faith journey and exploration with a diversity of others who are journeying toward Truth. 

 

That is what I love about First Friends – I believe we are a picture of a New Kind of Quakerism.  Unlike many other faith communities, we aren’t trying to make cookie-cutter Quakers that all look and act the same.  Nor are we making it about a system of beliefs or theological hoops to jump through. Rather, at First Friends we are simply taking people where they are and giving them tools to seek, grow, form, question, doubt, and migrate to new and exciting possibilities. And we embrace the migrating or those needing to migrate, and heck, I just may encourage a bit of migrating throughout the rest of this sermon series. It’s time to get moving! 

 

As we move into waiting worship, let us take a moment to ponder some queries. 

  • Do you know anyone who has left organized religion or is close to doing so? What has driven them away?  

  • How have belief systems influenced your view of God and neighbor? Have you made any changes over time? 

  • Where have we migrated or where do we need to migrate at First Friends? 

Also, something new for this fall – after Meeting for Worship we are offering a space for those wanting to further explore and discuss the queries and ideas from the sermon. Feel free to grab a cup of coffee and a snack and head into the Seeking Friends room this morning. Please note that those who gather will facilitate the conversation. On non-monthly meeting Sundays we will meet in the parlor. 

 

 

 

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9-8-19 - Shalom in Unexpected Places

Shalom in Unexpected Places

 

Genesis 33:1-17

 

Beth Henricks – September 8th 2019

 

 

 

I am giving the message on our fall kick off Sunday because I took an intensive class on the Gospel of Peace from Earlham School of Religion in August.  This was an amazing class where we connected with students from Nigeria that have experienced significant violence from the terrorist group Bokam Harem and had a professor from the Theological College of Northern Nigeria as well as a Professor of New Testament studies from our sister seminary, Bethany and   we researched, reviewed and discussed how do we live into the gospel of peace when we live in a world of violence.  I prepared a research paper on the text that Bob read and part of our student experience in this class is to share a message with all of you on this text.  Thank you for being a part of my journey with this Master of Divinity.

 

We Quakers talk about peace quite a bit and usually reference this in terms of the absence of war.  We have a long history of seeking other alternatives to violence and war.  But what does the Bible say about peace?  As we read it cover to cover there is an awful lot of violence in the Scriptures and some of this violence seems to be commanded by God.  Even Jesus says in Matthew10:34  that he doesn’t come to bring peace but the sword.  Is God a God of peace or a God of violence and judgement?  We wrestled with this question throughout the class.  Our different flavors of Christianity have a number of views on this very issue.  I  believe the text that Bob shared with us today offers us a picture into the face of God and a glimpse of understanding into God’s character.

 

One of the things I have learned at seminary  is that we should never take anything at face value, particularly when it comes to reading the Bible.  There are issues of translation (from Hebrew, Greek to English),  the changes that occurred in manually copying the texts again and again over hundreds of years, the context of the environment when the words were written and understanding of what happened before and after each text.

 

The word peace is used in our English Bible but in the Hebrew language the word is shalom.  Most of us have heard this word before – I remember going to the Jon Stewart event in Washington DC in 2010, The Rally to Restore Sanity and I carried  a sign that said Shalom.  I thought I was holding up a sign advocating for peace – the absence of war.  But the meaning of shalom in the Hebrew is much deeper and more holistic then I ever understood. 

 

Shalom means being complete, being whole,  having a non-anxious presence,  a sense of well-being,  harmonious.    It calls us to a wholeness within ourselves.  So much of our violence starts within us and shalom calls us to allow God to bring us into our complete and whole being.  That is where we start. And then shalom takes us into the world and how we can impact the completeness of our family relationships, our neighbors, our communities, our country, and our enemies.

 

I selected Genesis 33:1-17 because this passage shows in a very dramatic way the possibility of shalom between two enemies that are flesh and blood, but also symbolized two nations and their possibility of reconciliation.  I view it as a powerful example of God’s shalom and the potential of bringing enemies together with deep divisions and former hatred.

 

This  text  is  all about transformation and reconciliation.  Both Jacob and Esau experience transformation and because of their vulnerability and openness they experience reconciliation.  While they could not live in the same land together, they maintained a peace between them.  I believe there are several lessons here that can impact us today.

 

This passage is considered a unified plot where the narrative prior to the chosen Scripture is important to the text.  That is why we must begin earlier in Genesis to understand why this reconciliation is so significant in showing the way of peace and shalom to bring wholeness to this relationship and provide an example for all of us in the possibility of shalom.

 

We start our story in Genesis 25.  Many of you will  remember this story.  Jacob and Esau are twins with Esau the first born and Issacs’s favorite son while Jacob, the younger brother was his mother Rebekah’s favorite son.  (Gen 25:24-28)

 

Esau gave up his birthright to Jacob for a pot of stew that he made, and it doesn’t seem like he cares much about what this birthright will mean to him.  Jacob continued in his deceit and trickery when Isaac calls out to Esau to hunt game and prepare a stew so that Isaac would give him his blessing.  Rebekah hears this and tells Jacob to bring her a goat so that she can prepare a stew and Jacob will pretend to be Esau and receive Isaac’s blessing.  They pull off the deception and Isaac gives Jacob the patriarchal blessing.  When Esau discovers this and confronts his father, Isaac stands by his covenant of blessing to Jacob even as this was done in deception to him.  (Genesis 27)

 

Esau was furious and hated his brother for stealing the blessing and was prepared to kill him. (Gene 27:41)  Rebekah hears about this and sends Jacob to her brother’s home for safety (Gen27:42-45).  He stayed there for 20 years and became successful in terms of animals and assets although he experienced great hardship through the trickery of his uncle Laban.  And his mother Rebekah was supposed to tell him when it was safe to return to their homeland.  He never heard from her for over 20 years and became a victim in Laban’s world.  However, Jacob continued with deceit and also tricked Laban to gain his own wealth.   

 

Jacob desired to return to the land of his birth, yet he feared an encounter with Esau even though it’s been 20 years they have been apart.  Esau by now is living in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.  Jacob sent messengers ahead with the promise of gifts to appease Esau.  The messengers returned telling Jacob that Esau is on his way to meet Jacob and his group with four hundred men.  (Genesis 32)   When Jacob sees 400 hundred men coming with Esau, he is frightened and divides into two groups.  He puts the least important individuals at the front and places his beloved Joseph and Rachel in the very back.  He goes ahead of all of them to face his brother.

 

Jacob made the first move in verse 3 by bowing to the ground 7 times until Esau is upon him.  Bowing to the ground would denote honor and respect to Esau and placed Jacob in an inferior position.  I believe  this is when shalom begins between these enemies. 

 

Verse 4 is such a powerful verse of grace, love and forgiveness.  It states, “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”    The running of Esau might have initially frightened Jacob as this could be the start of the attack, but instead there is a kiss, an embrace and tears  that offer reconciliation.    Is this not the expression of God’s love and peace?  Forgiveness of those who have wronged us?

 

Esau is then introduced to Jacob’s wives and children and they all bow down to Esau.  Esau asked for an explanation of all of this and Jacob declared that he wants to find favor with Esau and offers these gifts.  Esau said that he has enough, and that Jacob should keep all of this for himself.  So clearly even without the first-born blessing, Esau has been successful and does not need the offerings from Jacob.  Jacob insisted that Esau accept his gift because he has been blessed and has all that he needs.  Jacob must be feeling guilt knowing how he deceptively received the birthright and the blessing and wants to offer some recompense for his actions.   He might also be looking to  ensure that his stealing of the blessing is negated by acceptance of these gifts and that Esau cannot enact revenge on him in the future.  The scripture indicates that Esau did take and accept the gifts.  It is interesting to note that Esau used the term brother in addressing Jacob while Jacob used the term “My Lord” three times in these verses.  What is Jacob’s intent?  Is it to give honor to Esau to negotiate a treaty between them?  Is Jacob giving back the stolen blessing?  Or is he just afraid of Esau and appeases him with a false sense of honor and positions himself as socially inferior? 

 

Even after this amazing reconciliation, Jacob is still suspicious of Esau’s true intent.  Esau wanted to journey alongside Jacob, but Jacob made up excuses for why this is not possible.  He encouraged Esau to go ahead of him (maybe so there won’t be any blind attack from the rear).  Esau suggested leaving some of his people with Jacob, but Jacob feigns  an objection of why should my lord be so kind to me?   So, Esau returned to Seir and Jacob built a house in Succoth.

 

The very ending of the passage is a bit disappointing from the climactic embrace of the brothers.  Jacob told Esau that he would see him in Seir  (verse 14) but never goes to visit him.   While we see a total transformation in Esau’s heart, we don’t see quite the same transformation of Jacob.  While it appears that Esau has matured into the older son, Jacob is still looking behind his back.   Some biblical scholars say that a reconciliation has not occurred because the two former enemies  will not live together.  Do they in fact have reconciliation?   Can there be reconciliation without community?  Could this be a model of two nations living in peace?   Even with this ending, I would still propose this is a significant event of transformation and reconciliation.  Jacob and Esau moved from hatred and fear to respect and a  willingness to find a way to live peacefully.   Sometimes when we forgive it doesn’t mean that we will be close,  live by each other, forget the offense or be friends.  But what this forgiveness does is bring about shalom within us.

 

In this passage Esau conveyed God’s forgiveness and compassion.  Jacob saw God in Esau’s face because of the acceptance and favor Jacob experienced from Esau.  While the Jacob story line is the one that the Old and New Testament follow, I believe that Esau is essential to God’s narrative and a character in the story that should be honored more than our Christian tradition has conveyed. 

 

This story of Esau and Jacob is referenced in Obadiah (Obadiah 1:1-21) and Malachi  (Malachi 1:2-5)  and seems to interpret this story as “an inscrutable act of divine election”  These two prophets talk about this story in terms of Israel being selected as Yahweh’s chosen without any reason for this.   And view Esau’s descendants as the enemies of Israel.  These scriptures seem to enforce the idea of enemies that are destined to be in conflict because of God’s selection.  Jacob received this blessing even though it is achieved through trickery and deception.  This was ok with God?  That is a hard concept to accept as I have struggled for many years to understand how God selected this group of people to be his “chosen nation” and yet will reject others.   The NIV Student Bible commentary states that “God narrowed his focus to a single person in order to carry out his plan to save the world.  God couldn’t choose everyone – moreover, those individuals God did choose were not always the ones we admire.   I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition that taught me that we are predestined to be a part of God’s family.  I have struggled with this idea my entire life.  I embrace the God I see in this text that loves and accepts everyone and never gives up on anyone. And uses flawed characters to achieve shalom. 

 

References are made to this story in Paul’s writings in Romans 9:11-13.  This passage indicates that God had chosen Jacob over Esau even while in the womb that continued the narrative discussed of Divine selection.    Maybe this upending of the normal patriarchal system of the first born being given the blessing and birthright was to show God’s mercy to the underdog?  It is troubling to me in Verse 13 that says,  “As it is written, I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.”     How does God hate Esau that has shown so much compassion and forgiveness?  There is no question in the passage we have reviewed that we see the face of God in Esau. 

 

I believe there is a blessing for Esau as he embraced shalom and God’s calling for forgiveness and wholeness.  Esau is a significant part of the narrative of God’s shalom and displays the character of God through his forgiveness and reconciliation with his brother even though Esau’s descendants are mostly ignored in our Bible.  God asks all of us to be peacemakers in our own contexts.  Even when we have been wrongly accused, our honor has been denounced, our status or possessions have been taken from us, we are called to shalom.  We may have righteous vengeance in our hearts but our openness to God’s calling of forgiveness can be profound even if it takes many years to come to this point of understanding.   We all are called to the Gospel of Peace.

 

I invite you to reflect on the queries listed in the bulletin.  If God is speaking to you directly please hold that message tenderly in your heart and reflect on what it means and what you do with it.  If God is giving you a message to share with all of us, please be faithful and stand and wait for a microphone to be brought to you.

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8-25-19 - Abundance: The Fullness of the Kingdom

Abundance: The Fullness of the Kingdom

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

August 25, 2019

 

John 6:4-15 (NRSV)

4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages[a] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[b] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

 

Last week we talked about detachment and at the end of my sermon I challenged us to tangibly give away or let go of something we had become attached to or that was keeping us from spiritually growing and loving our neighbors. Even though our time of waiting worship last week was mostly silent, I was overwhelming surprised (in a good way) by all the conversations I had this week with many of  you regarding the actions you have taken and the things in which you have chosen to let go. I sense there was a lot of burden in the form of anxiety, fear, jealousy, sadness, and hopelessness that needed to be removed.

This week, we move from Jesus clearing the temple to Jesus feeding the five thousand.  Now, that might seem like a drastic transition - from Jesus with whip in-hand knocking over the tables to Jesus with fish and loaves of bread feeding the masses.  In many ways two completely different pictures of Jesus. 

Again this week we are going to see some obstacles which get in our way of fulling living life in “real time” – but also we are going to juxtapose the obstacles with the abundance of God and how it provides for us and helps positively fill those spaces we have opened up through detachment.

To begin, let’s take a look at the scriptures for this morning.

To give some context, just prior to this story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, Jesus had been doing some rather miraculous but highly controversial things.

·        He had healed an invalid at the pool of Bethsaida causing a huge controversy because it was on the Sabbath.

·        He also healed a Roman Official’s son causing such a controversy that Jesus didn’t even go to the official’s home – rather he did a “distance healing.” The ramifications for him going to his home would have been numerous.

·        And finally, Jesus even brought some hated Samaritans to faith (a huge no-no).

If you thought the whip and turning over the tables were controversial…these three things alone were enough to get him crucified in his day.  Obviously, he got their attention because in verse 5 of our scripture it says a “great crowd” was coming toward him. I think it would be fair to say this was not a completely friendly crowd, actually it was growing to be a fairly large grouping of people.  It was most likely made up of…

·        Seekers

·        Naysayers

·        Politicians

·        Jews and Gentiles, and probably people who followed other religions

·        Sick people, invalids, people with disabilities wanting healed

·        The curious

·        People wanting forgiveness

·        People looking for a handout

·        People wanting a new vision

Scripture says that it was 5000 men – which really meant like 10,000+ people when you add the women and children and extended family. 

So, to make this more understandable – just imagine all the people who live in Speedway, Indiana actually coming together on the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  That is about what we are talking about. 

It interested me that Jesus asked Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” But after doing a little research, it is clear why.  Philip is the “local” among them.  He lived and came from a small town outside of Bethsaida – the exact location this event takes place.  Philip would know where to get bread and food.

Yet, Philip knew too well the reality of the request immediately going to finances.

In vs. 7 Philip answers him… ”It would take more than a half a year’s wages to buy enough bread.”

Now…Having a crowd of this size is one thing, but having a crowd this size hangry (hungry and angry) is another thing, and then add to that having a diverse group of people from beggars to politicians hangry raises the tensions even higher. Finally add to that a financial problem and knowing the little town’s assests are not going to be able to compensate creates a quick crisis – a major one. 

Just the other night, I was watching the documentary on PBS about Woodstock.  Woodstock was much larger than this, but in many ways was very much the same.

Where was the voice of reason?

In verse 8, Andrew takes a shot.

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will that go among so many?”

Andrew almost seems to be grasping for straws by picking out the boy and his small lunch. 

Let’s stop here for a moment before moving into what Jesus does.

I see this scene as a perfect example of the Universal Church - a large group of people from all walks of life and cultures, with all kinds of issues, sicknesses, problems, orientations, lifestyles, some seeking, some curious, some following the crowd, some advocates, some cynics, some helpful…but all with basic needs like eating, sleeping, shelter, finances, and community.

But the piece that we often forget is Jesus is in the center of it all.  He is one of them. He knows the crisis that is brewing. He has been assessing the situation for several days as the crowds started to grow and follow.  He probably even knew that he was going to have to get them to an open space where they all could sit down comfortably.  Not an easy feat in Jesus’ day. 

See folks, too often we make Jesus into simply a magician or maybe more like Will Smith’s genie in Alladdin when reading this story. But the Jesus who emerges in this situation is more than a genie or magician who solves our problems or fulfills our wishes.

Instead, I believe Jesus acts as…

·        A Community Leader

·        A Unifier

·        A Calming Presence

·        A Priority Setter

I see Jesus in this moment more like a Martin Luther King Jr., Malala Yousafzaia,  Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu…

The scripture says, Jesus sits them down – a gesture that speaks to his leadership, of bringing order, and settling. He had picked a comfortable place – a large grassy area – which are not easy to find in this part of the world.  Location was important.

I am sure this gesture would have signaled a break – and people would have immediately looked to their bags for food.

Now, remember not everyone could see what was going on – we’re talking 10,000 people plus sitting in a large area. Scripture doesn’t even say Jesus got everyone’s attention – because he simply couldn’t – there was no P.A. systems, no big Sony Jumbotrons, nothing like that.

Instead Jesus does exactly what he knew and taught.

·        He gave thanks for what they had. (that was his first priority always)

·        He led by example and gave away what he had or what he was given to those sitting around him.

Please note, scripture does not describe any “magic” – rather it describes abundance and good stewardship.  It says…

11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

 I sense his example was so contagious, so freeing that a chain-reaction took place.  As Jesus broke-bread and gave thanks – the hearts of the people were opened.  This is the true miracle – a miracle bigger than multiplying fish and loaves.  This was a miracle of people caring for one another – people who had come probably for their own gain, or own selfish reasons. 

God’s abundance was not only seen in full stomachs, but more importantly in the unifying of a large diversity of people from all different cultures, beliefs, positions, and statuses finally seeing and taking care of one another. 

Thus the people’s response, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  They didn’t say miracle worker or great healer – they used the word prophet – a person in the flesh who carried an important message from God.  And since many in the group were most likely Jewish and they believed that the prophet to come was also the messiah or the one to rule the nations.  They would have agreed as well that Jesus’ actions were of this nature, thus he should be their KING!

In reality, what these ten thousand plus people experienced was the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is all about abundance.  Author and theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote the following about abundance in his book, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity.”

 

We who are now the richest nation are today’s main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us.  Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity. 

The conflict between the narratives of abundance and of scarcity is the defining problem confronting us…The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being…And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us.  In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor things – nothing can separate us from God. 

What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then, creates a different kind of present tense for us.  We can live according to an ethic whereby we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy, precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace to care about others as we have been cared for.

At the end of his quote, I believe Bruggemann is saying when we allow ourselves to detach (like from last week) from the things that drive, control, cause anxiety, make us frantic and greedy – then we are able to finally see our neighbor and find a new sense of peace. 

What Jesus did was to help the people gathered on that grassy space having lunch to see their true calling and to glimpse a picture of the Kingdom of God in action.

Abundance is described in the dictionary as fullness. Most of the time we think of fullness in terms of our stomachs being full, but Jesus showed that there was more to it…there was a…

·        Fullness in leading his followers through example.

·        Fullness in bringing unity among the diverse people of this world.

·        Fullness in holistically healing the people (body, mind, & spirit).

·        Fullness in meeting the basic needs of those around us.

·        Fullness in being a person of hope, grace, forgiveness, and love.

In our day and age (much like in Jesus’), these are radical concepts.  We live too often in a self-absorbed, cynical, stress induced, anxiety driven world. But if we allow Jesus to sit us down on the grassy knoll of our lives and learn by his example, we are able to see and, I believe, inhabit the foundations of Kingdom Living as Jesus taught. This story of feeding the crowds teaches us to…

·        Lead by example in our own areas of influence.

·        Bring unity (not division) in the places we live, work, and gather.

·        Be healers (not hurters).

·        Make sure that those around us have their basic needs met.

·        And be people of hope where grace, forgiveness, and love are central to living.

 

 

 

At First Friends, how can we answer the "Kingdom Call” to be bearers of the abundance of God?  What part do you play? In what way will you make visible God's abundance in someone else’s life this week? 

 

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8-18-19 - The Freedom of Detachment

The Freedom of Detachment

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

August 18, 2019

 

John 2:13-22  (MSG)

 

13-14 When the Passover Feast, celebrated each spring by the Jews, was about to take place, Jesus traveled up to Jerusalem. He found the Temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves. The loan sharks were also there in full strength.

15-17 Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out of the Temple, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. He told the dove merchants, “Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall!” That’s when his disciples remembered the Scripture, “Zeal for your house consumes me.”

18-19 But the Jews were upset. They asked, “What credentials can you present to justify this?” Jesus answered, “Tear down this Temple and in three days I’ll put it back together.”

20-22 They were indignant: “It took forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to rebuild it in three days?” But Jesus was talking about his body as the Temple. Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this. They then put two and two together and believed both what was written in Scripture and what Jesus had said.

 

 

Two weeks ago, I began this series by looking at the Quaker distinctive of simplicity, and last week I added to that a subcategory, Sabbath, what I defined as spending time finding delight, wonder and joy in our world. This week, I want to explore another subcategory that deals with the hard work of cleaning out our personal lives and embracing the love of God and neighbor – that through the discipline of detachment.

 

Detachment is a process that frees us from whatever interferes with our

spiritual growth and helps us avoid disordered inclinations

and relationships with persons or things. (re-read)

 

For several weeks now, I have been personally reading about the life of the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Actually, the book that started my interest was a book about the great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen and his love for the artist, Vincent van Gogh. It has surfaced that Henri Nouwen used to teach a spirituality class on van Gogh (How I wish I could have taken that class.) If you know anything about both men, they embraced a deep sense of detachment in their personal lives for the sake of spiritual growth and serving their neighbor. And both wrote about their process of “letting go” of fame and notoriety as a spiritual discipline - one finding delight, wonder, and joy in the faces of mentally challenged men and women at the L’Arche Community in Canada, and the other in what he labeled “potato eaters” and coal miners which he painted in the Netherlands. I find it interesting that these two men were known to have very few possessions or attachments in life, yet they found a deep sense of delight, wonder, and joy in the ordinary, while ironically becoming extremely famous after death.    

 

In this same vein, Richard Rohr once wrote in his book, Healing Our Violence through the Journey of Centering Prayer,

 

“All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .”

 

This freedom was evident in the life of Henri Nouwen, Vincent van Gogh, and many other people throughout the ages, but lately I am sensing a lack of that freedom and connection in the Universal Church and in our World.

 

In discussing Simplicity and Sabbath the last couple of weeks, I have assumed and briefly hinted on the idea of “detachment” and letting go as part of the process. But today, I want to focus more deeply on this.    

 

To do that, let’s start by returning to that interesting scripture that was read. One may wonder why I chose it and what it has to do with detachment and letting go. 

 

Jesus clearing the temple doesn’t seem to be speaking to us individually as much as it is Jesus “sticking-it” to the religious establishment for allowing the temple to become a marketplace full of sales people, pay-day lenders, and loan sharks (please note: there are several relevant issues in this text that we may explore in later sermons). For my teaching this morning, I believe there is a metaphor, (or better yet) an example, in this story about our own spiritual and daily journeys.  And I believe there is an urgent need to begin detaching from the things that clutter our personal temples and detract us from nurturing a trust in God and love for our neighbor.

 

The scripture is rather dramatic in it’s telling. Jesus on the spot creates and brandishes a whip and begins to clean out the temple. Now, this does NOT seem very Quakerly or for that matter how we typically view our calm, emaciated, gentle, and calm Jesus. What we need to remember is that scripture tells us that Jesus had already been to the temple and seen what was going on and did not act upon it. Instead he let his thoughts brew for a bit, and when he returned he knew exactly what he was going to do. Some of us would call Jesus’ action in the Temple an act of planned civil disobedience.

 

Even though chaos ensued as Jesus takes his whip and starts driving out the animals, scattering the coins, overturning tables, he was able to get everyone’s attention, including the disciples who were struggling with what was going on and what he was saying.

 

Folks, sometimes when things get really bad, we need to take drastic measures.  Remember Jesus wasn’t hurting people with his whip, he was getting their attention. He was doing what was necessary, and I believe he had a good reason. I think it is interesting, no one comments on how the merchants or loan sharks took it.  They were too busy gathering up their spilled money and scattered animals – worrying about their losses.  Because, let’s be honest, they probably knew that they should not be doing what they were doing in the Temple in the first place…and yes, I am sure they had been warned. 

 

What this scene unfolds is that Jesus was opening their eyes, getting their attention, reminding them in a serious way that something was wrong in their temple. 

 

As I continue to read scripture with new eyes, I have noticed that whenever Jesus comes on the scene or moves “into the neighborhood” the people around him are almost forced to see with new eyes or from new and challenging perspectives. Jesus was not the comfortable person to have around that we have made him out to be. He shook things up. Let’s be honest…he did things that would ultimately get him crucified. Often, he was asking probing questions, penetrating what was at the heart issues, questioning motives, and always seeking some type of response. And in this case, he was creating a “wake up call” or a “call to action.”

 

Now, Quakers and Christians from early on have used the term, “the body of Christ” to describe themselves.  This is due to the Apostle Paul describing the followers of Christ as a body with many parts in Corinthians. But just following that section of scripture, Paul continues on and takes it a step further.  In Corinthians 6:19 Paul says,

 

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” 

 

As Quakers, we often talk about the Light or the Spirit of God dwelling within us.  Just think about this…if our temples are cluttered and needing cleaning – it might be hard to engage that inner light or spirit.     

 

Jesus was cleaning out or clearing his temple – what will become known as his body (the body of Christ). And I believe it was an example of what we are to do in our own personal lives.  If our bodies are truly temples – then there are going to be times when we need to get out our proverbial whips and do some deep cleaning and clearing for our own sake and the sake of our neighbor.  

 

I know for me there are times I need more than a “Facebook Like” of encouragement or more than a kind nudge or suggestion. Often, I need, like Jesus, to get out a whip, shake things up, and have a personal wake up call. 

 

Take for example, there is that day when you get up and your pants have become too tight (that was me this past week) – out comes the whip and we need to set in place a discipline of detachment from food entering our body.  And yes, I need a whip on me to remind me to exercise – especially after a couple of days of faithfully trying. Come on…we even have an idiom for this, we say, “I need to whip myself into shape.”  

 

Sometimes it’s not just food that is unhealthy, but it can be a boundaryless, abusive, draining person or relationship that is unhealthy, stealing life, time, and robbing us of joy, wonder, and delight.  And it’s time to get out the whip!     

 

Or maybe it is getting out the whip and cleaning house because we have been trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”  Did you know that there was an actual Jones family behind that idiom. Most think it comes from a comic strip, but in 1853, Elizabeth Shermerhorn Jones commissioned a 7,690 sq. ft. mansion to be built looking over the Hudson River.  Elizabeth came from wealth, so she went all out building the mansion in Norman Romanesque architecture. It was so unique, it singlehandedly caused a building boom. Everyone in the area began expanding and remodeling their homes to “keep up with the Joneses.”

 

“Keeping up with the Jones” is allowing oneself to be attached to the possessions, life experiences, relationships of someone other than yourself.  Some days living in Hamilton County it is so evident that it makes me sick. How it effects the education system, sports programs, lifestyles, and daily living is a real nightmare and it is taking a toll on our children, families, and those trying to keep up.  No wonder the need for counseling and mental health are on such a rise in our area.  We simply can’t keep up.      

 

And let’s be honest, when we try to keep up, we’re not usually trying to match our lifestyles to the 1 percent of Americans who can afford private jets and lavish diamonds. We’re just comparing ourselves to our nearest neighbors – probably the ones who look just a little bit wealthier than we do.

 

However, if we could peer inside the Joneses’ home and bank accounts, we might not get such an enviable picture.

 

And in reality, isn’t this all a continuation of what we wrestled with in our adolescence – what we then called “peer pressure?” Some things never change.  

Or maybe it is getting out the whip and cleaning house in the area of image. 

The fashion industry has always sought to allure us to create an image, a persona. Even early Quakers knew how much fashion set images, thus early Quakers only wore Quaker gray to promote equality, not status.

Have you noticed how Social Media can help you create an image or persona that often is not realistic or true? I wish life was more like what the majority of people posted – all the good and very little of the bad (well, except for political posts). 

Every photo has been cropped, blemishes replaced and filters added.  Someone once said that the smart phone has completely changed how we literally look at the world. People now take multiple photos and choose the best ones, crop out what they do not like, and make life seem almost perfect. But go to your parent’s house and look through the old photo albums and you will find a much different situation. Crying children at birthday parties or on Santa’s lap, high schoolers with pimples, new mothers looking exhausted, sweat and dirt…I think you get what I am saying. 

I was at a very unique conference a few years ago and our speaker was Dan Allender (who wrote the book on Sabbath I talked about last week). He said in his family any time some type of disaster happened, he or his wife would grab the camera to capture the moment.  From spilled milk reactions, to broken arms from falling off bikes, to temper tantrums he had images of it all.  They kept all these pictures in an album that was labeled “Real Life.”  He said when showing his friends, people would be appalled or shocked, even saying, “Why would you do such a thing?” He was clear, it reminded his family that life is not always the image we make of it.    

Folks, I think you get what I am saying. 

When you and I get the whip out in our own Temples, I see it more as what we might call today a “reality check” or an “eye opener.”  All of a sudden, we become aware of how the symptoms we experience, like anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, hopelessness, sadness, disconnection are part and parcel to the negative attachments we have made to things like I have described.  And even more, when we are in bondage to those symptoms, it effects our neighbors, our family, our loved ones, our friends.

I believe God has been teaching us and calling us to detach ourselves from those things that get in the way of fully engaging this life. Those things that deprive us of our true delight, wonder, and joy, that blind us from seeing the beauty in and around us.   

When we take out that whip and engage the hard work with the Spirit’s help – it is just like with Jesus – the temple walls we have created may begin to crumble, sometimes they will completely fall apart, or even be destroyed – leaving us feeling almost dead. 

 

But as Jesus said, “Destroy this temple…and I will raise it again.”   

 

And that is when we are reminded of what true resurrection is all about.  Author Rob Bell said it well, “To have resurrection…we must have death.”

 

To die to our selfish attachments, to die to always having it our way, to die to finding our identity in image, possessions, or achievements, is the beginning of experiencing the ongoing resurrection in our lives.

 

If you and I look carefully, we have opportunities for resurrection each and every day – if our attachments don’t clutter our vision.

 

This week I want to challenge us to work on the discipline of detachment.  It’s time to get out our whips! 

 

I want to challenge you this week to consider how you might tangibly give away or let go of something you are attached to.

 

As we go into a time of open worship

·        Be aware of the feelings that arise in you when you think of giving away or letting go this attachment.

·        Spend some time meditating on it.  Ask the Spirit for guidance.  

·        Then commit this morning to letting go.   If you sense a need for more accountability feel free to stand where you are and speak out loud what you plan to give up or let go (you don’t have to go into details – you may not know those yet, but speak out what  you want to give up letting the Body of Christ surround you in silent prayer.

 

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8-11-19 - Menuha: A Restful Delight.docx

Menuha: A Restful Delight

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

August 11, 2019

 

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV)

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;[
a]
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

 

Last week I ended my sermon with a plug for this week’s sermon on Sabbath. I believe Sabbath to be a subcategory of our Quaker distinctive of Simplicity, even though many Friends seemingly ignore or neglect to talk about Sabbath, today. That may be solely due to how some Quakers look at special days.

 

You see, early Friends traditionally did not follow the church calendar observed by other Christian denominations. Actually, many Quakers (unlike us at First Friends) do not even celebrate religious holidays such as Christmas or Easter on special or specific days, rather, they believe that the life of Christ is to be remembered and experienced each day of the year.

 

By the same token, Quakers usually believe that every day of the week is the Lord's day, and it is not required for us to hold our worship meetings on a Sunday.

 

For us and many other Quakers, our largest Meetings for Worship are usually held on Sundays, but this is often only due to tradition or convenience, rather than believing Sunday to be the Sabbath. Many groups of Friends hold their worship meetings on other days of the week.

 

What these beliefs and traditions clearly point out is that the concept of Sabbath has become linked to a specific day of the week, a specific time frame, and for specific purposes – which vary among religious groups – but often assume some type of worship, and some sense of rest and renewal for our busy lives.

 

Similar to last week with simplicity, sabbath is both an inward and outward practice or maybe a better way of putting it,

 

Sabbath is a state-of-mind as much as a physical rest.

 

Let me explain this a bit.  Jewish commentators have said that God created menuha on the seventh day. Menuha is the Hebrew word for rest, but it is better translated as joyous reprose, tranquility, or delight.  That is a bit different than how we think about rest, today.

 

Rabbi and popular Jewish Theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel said,

 

“To the biblical mind Menuha is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony…It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust.”

 

Now, I am sure that is probably not how most of us were taught to think about Sabbath.  But I have to be honest, as I have probed more deeply in Quaker theology, I find the concept of Sabbath viewed in this way rather fitting for Quakers. 

 

Seeking a state where there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust is not only a hope of Quakers but is supported by our distinctives, testimonies, and especially our S.P.I.C.E.S.  

 

I was first introduced to these concepts by Dan Allender in his book from The Ancient Practices Series simply titled, “Sabbath.” But I was quick to realize that what I had been taught was far off from what was meant by Sabbath.  Dan pointed out that…

 

“God didn’t rest in the sense of taking a nap or chilling out; instead God celebrated and delighted in his creation. God entered the joy of his creation and set it free to be connected but separate from the artist.”

 

In the creation poem or origin story of our faith, the writer tells us that God rested (Menuha) on the Seventh Day.  He looked back on what he had done in the creative act and saw it as beautiful…and then God took time to delight – to find wonder and joy in all that was accomplished.

 

I started to think about this in a more personal way and I had to ask myself,

 

“When have I, at the end of a week, taken time to delight in all

that I have done – to find wonder and joy in my week?

 

To be totally frank, most weeks as I enter the weekend, I am coming in rather exhausted and spent from the week, and then ramping up for the busy weekend – where I will accomplish all the “other things” that I didn’t get to or I put off throughout the week. 

 

Truthfully, most weeks I don’t think I have time for delight, wonder, or joy. I have family obligations, church meetings or activities, Meeting for Worship, shopping, lawn work, car maintenance, and the list goes on.  And let’s be honest, if I made that time, it would be for a fleeting moment and probably not all it could be or maybe just not worth it. 

 

Anybody feeling this way?

 

And then I read this from Dan Allender,

 

“Our war is not with exhaustion and our driven obeisance to work – those battles are related but mere consequences of the deeper war. Our war is against the possibility that God truly desires for us the kind of delight and joy that would make our silly obsession with work look like futzing over an airline bag of peanuts when outside our window is Mount Rainier, in all her winter glory, waiting for the passenger to look and gasp in amazement.” 

 

I don’t know about you, but too often I have found myself “futzing over a bag of peanuts” while missing the beauty outside the airplane window.  Such a good illustration.   What does “Futzing over a bag of peanuts” look like for you?  Think about that. 

About a year ago, now, I seriously began wrestling with and challenging my own understanding of sabbath, and I started to address my own “futzing over a bag of peanuts” that was getting in the way of my delight.  By no means have I figured it all out, or live it out perfectly each week.  

 

As you may have heard me say on occasion, I try and take a personal “sabbath” each week on Friday and my “sabbath” with my family is usually on Saturday. I have tried to make this a priority for many years. But sadly, often if I am not cognizant of what I am doing, those days simply become a plan to set-a-part a day to do other things, finish projects, to-do lists, you name it. 

 

Then, about a year ago, I became much more intentional about spending some or most of my sabbath day on something that I delight in, that brings me joy and wonder.  

 

At first, I sensed a lot of guilt and worry over this.  Mostly about things I “should” be doing.  As my friend, Martha, would always remind me, We need to “stop SHOULDING on ourselves!” To delight, to wonder, to find joy is a gift not a “should.”  

 

Being honest, there have been times when I have been so exhausted that I would get up on my personal sabbath, get the family out the door, and then sit down and become a couch potato for several hours.

 

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when that can bring some wonder and joy, and needed rest.  But what I have found is becoming a couch potato is often a negative default for me.  I will spend too much time watching or obsessing over  the news or politics, or watching movies or television that only cause me more stress.

 

I remember during one period of our lives, Sue and I would sit down to rest at night and watch one of the C.S.I.’s. We watched it right before bed and then wondered why we had nightmares and couldn’t sleep. We had to agree to stop watching those programs because they were effecting our peace and rest.  If you leave your t.v. on at home all the time or you have a news network on 24/7 I wonder how much it is stealing your delight, wonder and joy?

 

Yet when I participated in things that I delighted in or brought wonder and joy to me, I would actually be renewed, inspired, energized and even more ready to move into my next week.   

 

As many of you know, I delight, wonder, and find joy by going to Newfields and spending the morning gazing at great works of art or walking in their gardens, or spending time at a vinyl record shop or playing records in my home, or taking out a blank canvas or sketch pad and creating something new.

 

It is also a delight on my sabbath to have a special breakfast, not the quick usual oatmeal or cereal breakfast during the week, but an omlet or something more complex. I usually grind more coffee beans and make a second pot of coffee to enjoy throughout my morning. I may start my day with some reading, or simply on my back porch enjoying the many varieties of birds at our bird feeder. Sometimes, I do some gardening or lawn work (because that brings me joy) and it does not seem like a task to complete.  I usually take my daily walk on my sabbath, but it seems to have a different pace and I usually take a different route than the rest of the week.  Sometimes, I get in my car and take my wife and her assistant a cup of coffee. And if Sue is off for the day, we take a road trip or have a wonderful lunch together – and it is still sabbath because it is a delight.   

 

And when I am able to spend my Sabbath in delight, wander, and joy, guess what happens? 

·        I find myself to be a better husband, better father, better pastor, better friend. 

·        My demeanor is more calm, more playful, more ready for my week.

·        And I find myself in a state with less strife, less fighting, less fear and less distrust.

 

I don’t know about you, but I think our world could use more people having these feelings right now.  As we enter into waiting worship, take some time to ask yourselves the queries in the bulletin and start today seeking new delight, wonder and joy in our lives.   

 

When and where do you experience delight?

Why do you so often flee from delight?

How might you seek a sabbath of delight, wonder, and joy this week?

Sabbath Prayer

Lord of Creation,
create in us a new rhythm of life
composed of hours that sustain rather than stress,
of days that deliver rather than destroy,
of time that trickles rather than tackles.

Lord of Liberation
By the rhythm of your truth, set us free
from the bondage and baggage that break us,
from the Pharaohs and fellows who fail us,
from the plans and pursuits that prey upon us.

Lord of Resurrection,
May we be raised into the rhythm of your new life,
dead to deceitful calendars,
dead to fleeting friend requests,
dead to the empty peace of our accomplishments.

To our packed-full planners, we bid, "Peace!"
To our over-caffeinated consciences, we say, "Cease!"
To our suffocating selves, Lord grant release.

Drowning in a sea of deadlines and death chimes, we rest in you our lifeline
By your ever-restful grace,
allow us to enter your Sabbath rest
as your Sabbath rest enters into us.
In the name of our Creator, our Liberator our Resurrection and life we pray. Amen

--------------------
From Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

 

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8-4-19 - The Release of cumber

The Release of Cumber

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

August 4, 2019

 

Matthew 6:25-33 The Message (MSG)

 

25-26 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

After Yearly Meeting Sessions ended, Sue and I took a very brief excursion to Nashville, Indiana for a night to celebrate Sue’s birthday and to regroup our thoughts before school and life sped up again this week. 

 

During our brief trip we visited the artist T.C. Steele Historic Site (also known as the “House of the Singing Winds”) and then took the next day to walk around the artist colony of Nashville. Throughout our time, something kept catching my attention.  Everywhere we went “simplicity” seemed to be a focus. It was the simplicity of life in Brown County that had drawn T.C. Steele to the area – as well as many other artists – moving from the bustle of city life to the more simple life. As we frequented the shops in Nashville, we read signs that spoke of living simply, needing to simplify, and even that simplicity is the key to renewal. It almost seemed as if it this all was a sign for me to return to my study of this important topic.       

 

Actually, it is kind of obvious that a Quaker would be drawn to these thoughts, since “Simplicity” is actually the first of our S.P.I.C.E.S.  But it is also interesting how many of the other spices like “peace” or “community” get much more attention in the current society in which we live. I am under the impression, after spending some time contemplating the subject this week, that simplicity is foundational to all that we do and a key aspect of our worship posture and spiritual practice.  If anything, it is a key discipline to helping Quakers ground and nuture an active spirituality that has meaning and purpose in our daily lives.

 

What does a discipline of simplicity entail?

 

Let’s start with a very basic definition: A discipline of simplicity is the conscious act of not being tied to the things of this world.

 

I believe this is what Quaker and mystic Thomas R. Kelly wrote about in his classic A Testament of Devotion. He said,  

 

“He (God) plucks the world out of our hearts, loosing the chains of attachment. And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He carry it in infinite tender care.” 

 

As we discipline ourselves to not be tied to the things of this world, we then make room for God to put things into our lives that we can truly invest in that make a greater impact.

 

Or as one of my favorite Quaker authors, Catherine Whitmire wrote in her book, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity,

 

“Living simply means adopting a lifestyle that avoids unnecessary accumulation of material items, or what Quakers have often referred to as “cumber.” It helps us seek outward detachment from the things of this world in order to focus our lives on the leadings of the Spirit. Living simply entails clearing our lives and our houses of Spiritual and material clutter so as to create more space for faithful living.”

 

Quaker writer, Mary Gregory takes another perspective we should consider, she says,

Simplicity does not mean

Getting rid of all your possessions,

But rather integrating them

Into your life’s purpose.

 

But for our study this morning, Quaker Richard Foster, who wrote the book, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World – what I consider a primer on Christian simplicity says there are two ways to look at simplicity: 1) inner simplicity and 2) outward simplicity.

 

Let us begin with that first way – inner simplicity.

 

As with many of the disciplines, simplicity begins with going inward – which could be described as a simplicity of the mind and heart.

 

Jesus tells us not to worry about the outer material things in our life (as we heard in our text for this morning), but to seek one thing – to seek God’s Kingdom.  God’s Kingdom can seem like an archaic term, but to enter the Kingdom of God is to embark on the adventure of life.  Jesus warned us that it would be costly in terms of personal wealth, security, and fame. Instead Jesus emphasized a goal to seek justice, love our neighbors, and live equitably and in peace with one another. This was what the Kingdom of God was all about. 

 

Inner simplicity comes from keeping the first things first.  Jesus makes the promise that if we put first things first, all the other things will come, but they will not have the hold on us that they would if we sought them first. Richard Foster says,

 

“As Jesus made so clear in Matthew 6:25-33, freedom from anxiety is one of the inward evidences of seeking the kingdom of God first. The inward reality of simplicity involves a life of joyful unconcern for possession. Neither the greedy nor the miserly know that liberty.”

 

And here is the important part, Foster goes on to say,

 

“It has nothing to do with abundance of possessions or their lack. It is an inward spirit of trust.  The sheer fact that a person is living without things is no guarantee that he or she is living in simplicity.  Paul taught us that the love of money is the root of all evil, and often those who have it the least, love it the most. It is possible for a person to be developing an outward life-style of simplicity and to be filled with anxiety. Conversely, wealth does not bring freedom from anxiety.”

 

Much of this inner simplicity can grow within us through what the masters have called the “tilling of the soil of the soul.”  A simple image of turning over the dirt to refresh the soil.  We do this in many ways and through a variety of disciplines.  Some of us meditate or pray on a regular basis, some of us fast from food or refrain from using social media, some of us spend time in nature, take walks, practice yoga, read or study, create art, or seek mindfulness training…and the list could go on.  Each are a discipline or way to help stimulate and embrace a more simple outlook on life.  

 

Also, please note, inner simplicity can also be fed by outer simplicity and visa versa, if we allow them to. Just as a heart of service can grow by actually serving others. This reminds me of a time that I heard a Muslim man be asked why he fasts during Ramadan. I have never forgotten his response. He said, “so, I will know the taste of hunger in my mouth, and I will have compassion on the poor.”

 

So outward and inward simplicity work hand in hand.

 

Foster says, “to describe simplicity only as an inner reality is to say something false. The inner reality is not a reality until there is an outward expression. To experience the liberating spirit of simplicity will affect how we live” –

just like the Muslim man whose physically experience of hunger turned to compassion. 

 

This is why Sue and I used to love leading college students on weekend urban plunges in Chicago where we would experience homelessness, what it was like to live on the streets or be a part of a gang, the night life of drag queens and the LGBTQ community in Boystown, working alongside immigrants and refugees seeking hope. It turned those student’s physical experiences into compassion and personal desire to be change makers. Many have given up lucrative careers to serve in these places because the outward experience made an inward change.  

 

Christin Hadley Snyder, who Catherine Whitmire quotes in her book, gets to the core of this outer and inner reality.  She says,

 

“Simplicity is not so much about what we own, but about what owns us.  If we need lots of possessions to maintain our self-esteem and create our self-image and to look good to our neighbors, then we have forgotten or neglected that which is real and inward.  If our time, money, and energy are consumed in selecting, acquiring, maintaining, cleaning, moving, improving, replacing, dusting, storing, using, showing off, and talking about our possessions, then there is little time, money, and energy left for other pursuits such as the work we do to further the Community of God.”

 

Simplicity can seem overwhelming at its core, we must admit that our privilege and its effects on our neighbors and our own thinking.  No sign in Nashville, Indiana asking me to “Live Simply” is going to make a real change, but it might remind me that I always have some work to do.  Work in developing an inner and outer discipline of simplicity in my daily life? 

 

That work, I believe, starts with some personal awareness. I have been compiling some queries that have and continue to help me in wrestling with simplicity and in developing this awareness more inwardly.  I would like to share some of these queries that may help us not be so tied to the things of this world, so that we can consciously and actively respond.  

 

When purchasing an item…try asking…

 

1.     Will I own this thing, or will it own me?

2.     How large of an ecological footprint does this item leave?

3.     How much does creation have to pay for me to have this item?

 

I am reminded of Eziekiel 34:18-19, where God asks similar questions of Ezekiel,

 

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clean water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?  Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?”

 

4.     Are there ways to make purchases further the Kingdom of God? 

 

5.     Are there purchases I can make that will help charities (double the good)?

 

6.     Am I buying things for their usefulness, not their status?

 

7.     Do I reject anything that may be producing an addiction in me?

 

8.     Am I developing a habit of giving things away? (i.e. de-accumulate and or downsize)

 

9.      Am I simply believing all the hype and not seeking the Truth?

 

10. Am I learning to enjoy things without owning them? (using the library, borrowing tools or sugar from a neighbor)  

 

11. Am I developing a deeper appreciation for creation?

 

12. Am I rejecting anything that will breed the oppression of others?

 

13. Am I shunning whatever would distract me from my main goal?

 

These are a good start in helping us become aware of our need for a discipline of simplicity. 

 

Lastly, even if we try and work on our possessions and and work to de-accumulate, there is still another area that we may need to simplify and that is our schedules.  Too often we feel that if we are not busy, we must be missing something or should find something to fill out time.  This is especially true in our children’s lives - if our children are not involved in ever sport, music, art opportunity, etc…we must be depriving them.  I don’t know about that.

 

Just as we need to reduce the material clutter in our lives, we need to reduce the schedule clutter. And yes, the church is just as guilty as any on this point.

 

The discipline of simplicity is not just buying less; it is also learning to do less. 

 

I think that one of the best ways to practice simplicity of schedule is to take a Sabbath once a week. Obviously, this is one of the big ten – “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

 

When we hear about keeping the Sabbath – worship, resting, recreating, giving time to friends and family: keeping it holy, separate, different from the other days – we often say, “Oh that sounds very healthy, a really good idea, I’ll give that some thought…” But folks, let’s be realistic, we don’t say that about the other commandments – do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery… “Oh that sounds very healthy, a really good idea, I’ll give that some thought….” But we say it about taking a Sabbath.

 

Wayne Muller in his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives says this,

 

 “The Practice of Sabbath is designed specifically to restore us, a gift of time in which we allow the cares and concerns of the marketplace to fall away. We set aside time to delight in being alive, to savor the gifts of creation, and to give thanks for the blessings we may have missed in our necessary preoccupation with our work.”

 

Well, next week, we will take a more indepth look at the importance of Sabbath in our lives and how it creates an opportunity for simplicity to flourish.  So, I invite you to come back next week for part two…

 

For now, let us take some time to enter into waiting worship.

 

Maybe, take this time to read through the queries I read earlier that I have provided on a handout in the bulletin.

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7-14-19 - Life is Wild, God is Good

Life is Wild: God is Good

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

July 14, 2019

 

 

Psalm 27 (Message)


Light, space, zest—
    that’s God!
So, with him on my side I’m fearless,
    afraid of no one and nothing.

2     When vandal hordes ride down
    ready to eat me alive,
Those bullies and toughs
    fall flat on their faces.

3 When besieged,
    I’m calm as a baby.
When all hell breaks loose,
    I’m collected and cool.

4 I’m asking God for one thing,
    only one thing:
To live with him in his house
    my whole life long.
I’ll contemplate his beauty;
    I’ll study at his feet.

5 That’s the only quiet, secure place
    in a noisy world,
The perfect getaway,
    far from the buzz of traffic.

6 God holds me head and shoulders
    above all who try to pull me down.
I’m headed for his place to offer anthems
    that will raise the roof!
Already I’m singing God-songs;
    I’m making music to God.

7-9 Listen, God, I’m calling at the top of my lungs:
    “Be good to me! Answer me!”
When my heart whispered, “Seek God,”
    my whole being replied,
“I’m seeking him!”
    Don’t hide from me now!

9-10 You’ve always been right there for me;
    don’t turn your back on me now.
Don’t throw me out, don’t abandon me;
    you’ve always kept the door open.
My father and mother walked out and left me,
    but God took me in.

11-12 Point me down your highway, God;
    direct me along a well-lighted street;
    show my enemies whose side you’re on.
Don’t throw me to the dogs,
    those liars who are out to get me,
    filling the air with their threats.

13-14 I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
    in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
    Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
    Stay with God.


 

 

Today, we kick off Vacation Bible School after lunch in our fellowship hall.  I am so excited to interact with nearly 30 children from First Friends and Cross and Crown Lutheran as they travel to an “African” safari setting to ROAR and learn how Life is Wild and God is Good

 

I love that tag line – Life is Wild: God is Good.  That summarizes it well.  As did those final words from our scriptures for this morning. 

 

I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
    in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
    Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
    Stay with God.

 

As I have been pondering all of this, I realized I have not had a safari experience (except maybe at Disney’s Animal Kingdom - but that doesn’t really count). I haven’t really faced lions, giraffes, yaks, rhinoceroses, except in the zoo which usually is pretty safe.  Well, as I was thinking about the phrase Life is Wild: God is Good, I was reminded of an experience I will never forget.  It definitely shows how Life is Wild and God is Good.

 

My story starts one Christmas Eve in 2002, after the Candle Light Service at the Anglican Church I was pastoring in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our deacon, also named Bob, noticed a familiar face among our packed church.  It happened to be a social work client of his who was dying from Hepatitis C. As we greeted the worshippers at the back door (just as I do here each Sunday), Deacon Bob introduced me to Jack Coe.  Jack seemed to be a quiet man, but very gracious and glad to have joined us.  I sensed it had been a while since Jack had been in church.  He introduced us to the woman that was with him and her child. I assumed this was Jack’s daughter, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask at the time. 

 

Well, Jack continued to attend on occasion and Deacon Bob met with him and checked in with him. Then one day, Deacon Bob was out of town and he asked if I would go check on Jack, pay him a visit, listen to his stories, and he said, “make sure you take him communion.”  So, I called Jack, set up a time to visit, and had my vestry prepare my communion kit.  I visited Jack during the week.  He lived in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of town.  When I arrived the lady that I thought was his daughter was on her way out with her son.  She was kind and said, “You are in for an afternoon of stories.  Jack is in a good mood, today, and is looking forward to your visit.” 

 

Jack met me at the door in an ornate smoking jacket with no shirt, jeans, and socks and sandals.  His hair was still wet as if he had just taken a shower.  You could tell he was excited to see me.  We went into the dimly lit front room and he asked if I wanted a drink or food.  I declined, so he went straight to storytelling.  He told me about why he showed up on Christmas Eve.  It was the first time he had stepped foot into a church since he was a young orphan living at Starr Commonwealth For Boys - a place similar to Boys Town.  From what he said, he and his brother never really knew their parents and they were sent at young ages to live at the Commonwealth.  Several years after he ran away from the Commonwealth, he and several other young men decided to join a motorcycle gang.  He said he was mad at the world and needed a family.  So, Jack joined one of the roughest motorcycle gangs around – The Outlaws. 

 

At this point, I had never heard of the Outlaws.  I had heard of Hell’s Angels and those bike gangs you used to see on the T.V. show, Chips, but that was the extent of my knowledge.  Jack continued on as though I knew what bike gangs were all about.  He told me one wild story after another as though he was trying to see what would actually surprise me.  He explained how he moved up the ranks of the Outlaws, and described his drinking habits, drug addictions, wild living (remember “Life is Wild”), motorcycle accidents (he showed me the scars for proof), gun fights, knife fights (he showed me his knife collection in the beautiful Asian-style case on his wall) and then almost on a dime he sighed…sat down on the couch looking exhausted and said, “…then I was done with all of that. Well kinda, since  the Outlaws never let you out.”

 

It was then that Jack rolled up the right sleeve of his smoking jacket.  On his arm was a small tattoo close to his wrist.  It was an old tattoo because the green/blue ink had faded and run, and I could not even make out what it said.  Jack said, pointing to the ink blots, this is what will probably kill me.  He then told me that when he was introduced to the Outlaws, they tattoo you as part of their initiation.  He and the young men who had joined together all were tattooed with the same needle.  At this point tears formed in his eyes and he said, “I am the last one alive.”  Each of those boys who fled the Commonwealth and joined the gang had received Hepatitis C from the shared needle (including Jack).  He went into great detail sharing how each friend suffered and died, going into such detail that it was almost unbearable the grief and pain he was experiencing.  All of his friends died before they were 50. 

 

Then he looked at me and asked, “Why am I still alive?  My life has been all about suffering and pain. I don’t want this life anymore. I tried to give it up, but the Outlaws don’t let you.  Once an Outlaw always an Outlaw.”  Jack paused and then said, “That is why I am helping that young lady and her son who left the house when you arrived.”  See, to make money Jack explained that he was given a strip club to manage by a fellow Outlaw friend.  This gave him steady pay and a sense of normalcy. One night that young lady, who was a stripper in his club, came up to him scared to death.  She was not only a stripper but a prostitute as well and she had just found out that she was pregnant. Jack explained that when pimps find out one of his girls are pregnant they are done and often they get beat or sometimes lose their life.  She was rightly scared. 

 

Jack said at that moment, something inside him said, “This is your opportunity to do something right.”  At first, he thought it was the booze talking since most days he spent drunk or at least buzzed, but that day he realized it was God speaking to him.  He sensed God was good because he had saved him from the cruel deaths of his friends at much younger ages.  So, at the strip club that night, Jack told God that he would take care of the stripper and her child. 

 

He sold the strip club, went on disability, moved into the double wide and invited the stripper and her new born son into his home.  In the coming years, with the money he made off the strip club, he helped get her a stable job and a decent car and sent the boy to school.  He treated them like his own kids (thus the reason I thought she was his daughter – also please note I am not using their names because they are still alive). 

 

Well, by now, Jack was ready for me to speak and asked me to lead us in communion.  I took out my kit and found that there were no small cups for the wine.  Jack, without missing a beat, ran over to his cupboard and retrieved two plastic medicine cups – with a smile he said, “Well, its medicine for the soul.”  We communed, prayed, and Jack was ready for a nap, so I left. 

 

I went and visited Jack on several other occasions and he attended church a handful more times. Until one evening, I received a phone call from Deacon Bob.  Jack had passed from this life.  The Hepatitis C had finally won.  As I tried to process Jack’s passing, Deacon Bob mentioned something else, “Jack wants us to do his funeral.” I quickly agreed and said we would do whatever. 

 

Well, a couple of days later, Deacon Bob and I received the details for the funeral.  The funeral would take place at the Outlaw Headquarters of Detroit at 11pm (yes, 11pm in the evening) on a Thursday night.  I remember it was a Thursday night because my day off was Friday and I had a lot to process that day.

 

The night of the funeral came and Deacon Bob picked me up in his truck to head into uncharted territory.  We both had clerical collars on and pectoral crosses hanging around our necks.  I remember it being very cold that night.  The windchill was 8 below in Detroit.  Bob and I went early to check out where we were going.  I was assuming a nice hall with parking, but as we arrived at the block on which the Outlaw headquarters was on, we saw no building, lights were all broken out, and it looked rather daunting. 

 

Then Deacon Bob exclaimed, “There it is.” A fifteen-foot wall appeared with a large Outlaw logo (the skull and pistons as they call it) reading “Outlaws” in big red and black letters.  At the top of the wall was razor wire and we could see the roof of a building.  The only light was coming from what looked like a giant fire within the wall.  Then Deacon Bob and I noticed two men with large shot guns on top of the roof.  Folks, this looked like a war zone we were entering.  We passed what we now called “the fortress” and retreated several blocks back to a Tim Horton’s to rethink what we were doing.

 

We both pondered whether we would ever see our families again over a donut and coffee.  But in the end, Deacon Bob and I realized we had to do this for Jack. (Life is Wild sometimes but God is good.)  

 

After gathering up our courage, we returned to the truck, made a phone call to our Outlaw host, and found him waiting for us at the back of the wall of the fortress where there was a large sliding door.  We pulled up. The man said, “You must be the preacher men, I will take care of your truck for you. It is rather cold out here.” So far so good.  We hopped out and he opened the large sliding door and told us to follow along the inside of the wall to the side door.  There we would knock and wait for someone to invite us in. As we made our way around the inner wall, we found ourselves amidst cages with ravenous fighting dogs, walls covered in weaponry of all sorts – looking like a scene from medieval times, and a large bonfire, which we became concerned would become the crematorium for Jack’s remains. 

 

We approached the door, knocked, (and just as on T.V.) a little sliding door opened, and we saw two eyes peering through asking us if we were the “preacher men.” We said yes, and the door slowly opened and before us was an interesting sight.  The room was about half the size of our fellowship hall.  Down the middle was a huge table – maybe three 8 foot tables long and two or three wide completely covered with foods – like a giant pitch in (not what I expected from a bunch of biker guys).  My eyes followed the table to the front where Jack was laid out in his open casket.

 

His casket sat against the wall between two large round restaurant booths filled with the Outlaw leaders.  Above his casket, hung a large sign with the Outlaw logo with lists of the names of the gang members with check marks behind their name, what we would come to find represented people they had killed.  We were escorted to the casket by a younger Outlaw who was asked to host us.  Jack’s casket was open.  He had a 5th of Jack Daniels gripped in his hand (something he gave up about 15 years ago), quarters over his eyes, and business cards filled the entire casket from Outlaw leaders from all over the world. These were new traditions that Deacon Bob and I had never seen.

 

After we visited Jack’s casket, we were escorted over to another table filled with stacks of photo albums.  The young Outlaw was so excited to show us photos of Jack and his Outlaw life.  Jack seemed almost a hero to this young man.  As we looked, I noticed a photo of Jack with some country music stars.  This is when I put it together -- Jack always talked about his brother David (his only real family).  As I looked at the photos, I realized Jack’s brother was the singer David Allen Coe of “Take This Job and Shove It” fame.

 

While I was taking a look at the photos, another younger Outlaw came up and asked to see my pectoral cross.  He said, “Man, I love your cross.” He then proceeded to pull one at least twice the size from the shirt underneath his leather vest.  He told me that his Irish grandma gave it to him and it protects him (literally) from gun shots.  He then told us his family story through his various tattoos. 

 

As we were taking a look at the tattoos, a grumpier older Outlaw came up and gave us some directions for the service.

 

1.     No scripture readings.

2.     No talking about Jesus.

3.     Just tell us about Jack.

 

Deacon Bob’s entire job that night was to share several scripture passages that Jack loved.  He leaned over and asked, “What should I do?” I told him he will know.  I was thinking about what I was going to say as well.  I had written out my thoughts, but nothing seemed right for the current setting.  Plus, I will be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable saying anything with about 150 rough looking men and some women looking at me – knowing they all had weapons on them. How did I know? Well, most as them introduced themselves by flashing their piece or showing us the handle of their knife, and then shaking our hands.  We had several men tell us we should never have come – I think it was all to build their ego and our fear. 

 

Well about 11:45pm, the Outlaws gathered, and the leader pointed at us to start.  Deacon Bob began by telling a story of how he met Jack through being his social worker. He then proceeded to say how much Jack loved to read. And before I knew it, Deacon Bob had shared Jack’s favorite scriptures without saying where they came from – no one but he and I knew. 

 

Now it was my turn.  Just as I was about to speak, an Outlaw said in a gruff tone, “Make sure to keep it short preacher man.” He was sitting on top of the illegal gambling machines that were covered up and lined the wall. I started by telling them about my long talks with Jack.  How I learned about his difficult life and upbringing, and how he always took care of people (I got some nods of agreement from the Outlaws), I also told them how I saw God in his actions and life. They all gasped when I said I met him for the first time at church. And they laughed out loud when I told them the story of Jack running to get the medicine cups to use for communion and how he said it was “medicine for the soul.” Finally, after I finished, several of the Outlaws shared their remembrances of Jack (almost in waiting worship manner).  

 

By the time I was done, Deacon Bob and I sensed the presence of God in that wild place.  The stripper, her son, and her parents were all there and came up to thank us and ask us what we thought of having the funeral at this place.  Her parents then told us that earlier, Jack’s casket was put on a trailer and pulled behind one of the Outlaw’s choppers through the streets of Detroit.  It was a tradition that they would have a huge procession and the rival gangs would take shots at the casket when they drove by at 80-90 mph. (Remember the wind chill that day was 8 below.)

 

Well, after we said our goodbyes, the Outlaws escorted us past the large bar at the end of the room where the bartender made a remark that we should not be let out – we laughed and continued through the side door and back into the walled area outside the meeting space.  My heart was pounding. There we were again greeted by the man who parked Deacon Bob’s truck.  He opened the huge wall entrance and there was the truck started, warmed up and ready to go. 

 

We said very little on the way home. At one point, we tried to take an inventory of what all we had seen, but it was simply overwhelming. It still is.  But today, I recognize that even when life seems pretty wild – God is always good.  I believe God gave Deacon Bob and I the right words and attitudes in that wild place, but even more God had given us the eyes to see that of God in our brother Jack. 

 

 

 

Queries:

Where is my life a little wild, currently?  How am I seeing God as good in the midst? Who do I have a hard time seeing that of God within?   

     

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7-7-19 - Not Just Novelties

Not Just Novelties

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

July 7, 2019

 

Galatians 5:13-15 (NRSV)

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

[Please note much of this sermon recounts history we learned while on our Quaker Affirmation Trip to Philadelphia. Some of it was also backed-up and quoted in an article, Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July on the LA Quaker blog and the book The Missing Peace: The Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History by James Juhnke and Carol Hunter.]

 

It is good to be back with all of you after a wonderful Affirmation trip to Philadelphia with our youth and chaperones. I bring greetings from Race Street Friends Meeting which meets at the Friends Center in Philadelphia where American Friends Service Committee and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is housed.  We worshipped last Sunday with them and had a completely silent Meeting for Worship. We were told it was the first all-silent meeting they have had in quite some time. (I guess you could say that our presence made them speechless.) We stayed to meet and greet during their fellowship hour and it was a wonderful time of greeting new Friends.   

 

The timing of our trip to Philadelphia was quite interesting, being that it was the week leading up to the Fourth of July in the very town that our independence was formed and secured. I also find it interesting that over the years, the Fourth of July holiday has continued to grow to a week (or two) of celebrating.  Actually, as we crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge from our dinner in New Jersey back into Philadelphia last Saturday night, we were able to see two or three different fireworks celebrations taking place around Philadelphia (days before the actual celebration). It was a beautiful and unique site from the bridge.

 

Since our trip was both filled with Quaker history and American history, we found ourselves spending a great deal of time processing all that we were learning, including some things that many of us never knew, or had learned in a slightly different way. Often, we said, “That isn’t what I was taught.”

 

As we stood in the actual room where the Declaration of Independence was signed, we were told by the park ranger that we celebrate Independence Day on the wrong day. (Did you know that?) It was actually July 2, 1776, when Congress, after succumbing to the demand by South Carolinian delegates to cut an anti-slavery passage out of the drafted Declaration of Independence, that they unanimously voted on Virginian Richard Lee’s resolution that,

 

“These united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”

 

Over the next two days they did final revisions and edits and when it went to the printing press, the printer simply put that day’s date at the top, as was custom.  So, the printing declared it to be on July 4, but that was simply the date of printing – our Independence Day was really July 2.

 

And it was because of an almost prophetic letter John Adams sent to his wife, Abigail, back home in Massachusetts on July 3 that we celebrate our independence each year the way we do.  He wrote to her,

 

“It (our independence) ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

 

Actually, the first official Fourth of July celebration did not happen until 1781, but history notes that there was a celebration on July 4th, 1776 in Philadelphia.  And in 1777 there were even more than the first year – it was already growing into something much bigger one year out.  

 

But what you may not have heard was that on that July 4th in 1777 there was great violence happening to Quakers in the midst of the celebration.  Many Quaker homes were vandalized or burned, and many Quakers themselves were being shunned because they were not patriotic enough.

 

Now, history notes the early American Quakers did not celebrate holidays – all days were considered equal and sacred.  But even as Fourth of July became more and more standard practice in our country, Quakers (early on) refused to celebrate the Fourth of July because of their religious beliefs. You see, the Quakers made it clear that they would not celebrate holidays, especially if they commemorated military victories.  

 

Later when the National Anthem was introduced many Quakers would not stand or sing it because of the line, “the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” As well, many refused to stand or recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a symbol the flag.  

 

Before Colin Kaepernick took a knee in our era, our Quaker ancestors “took a knee” at the founding, development, and celebration of our own country.  They too were told they were unpatriotic, un-American, they were harassed, threatened, jailed, thrown out, even killed for their beliefs.     

 

Folks, I think we need to recognize that our history still includes the Quakers because of their radical and non-conformist nature (that was clear in every presentation we encountered while in Philadelphia.)  Because the Quakers took a stand, because they did not conform to society, because they refused to participate in war or it’s celebration, they are remembered today. 

 

On our trip, we learned that the Philadelphia Quakers sent emissaries to try and negotiate with the British to prevent a war. They also refused to accept tea that had been taxed, and instead of throwing it into the Delaware River and making a huge scene like in Boston, they quietly paid the British merchants to take the tea back to England. The Quakers worked diligently to avoid war and violence at all costs. 

 

What our youth, our leaders, and I, myself, continued to process on the trip was, “What has happened to the Quakers?” What has happened to our ideals and distinctives and our bold testimony of taking a stand for peace? Where has our radical-ness gone? Where are the Quaker’s coming together to make their voices heard, today? 

 

We had to ask, why were so many of our guides and the park ranger at Independence Hall so surprised that we were Quakers, that we had youth, that we were proud of our heritage?  As we wrestled with this after we returned, Beth said to me in the office on Wednesday, it was almost like we were treated as if Quakers were a novelty. Is that what we have become?  Is that why everyone is surprised that we still exist?  We have become a novelty instead of voice and force for change? 

 

Novelties are easily forgotten, even laid down.      

 

After returning from our trip, I have been kind of haunted by all of this.  I have been running some “What if” scenarios through my mind.  In an article titled, “Why Quakers did not celebrate the Fourth of July” the author quotes the Quaker historian and theologian Howard Brinton, who wrote an article called, “What if,” imagining what might have happened if the Quaker emissaries had been successful and the Americans hadn’t fought the British. He says,

 

“We cannot know for sure how history might have unfolded absent “the shot heard round the world,” but Brinton imagines the world might have been more peaceful if the Americans and British had stayed on more congenial terms.  Perhaps slavery could have been abolished without a Civil War. And perhaps the Germans would not have launched the Great War if the English and Americans were more closely allied. One thing I know for certain:  Francis Scott Key would never have written a national anthem about “bombs bursting in air.”

 

What if?  What if Quakers again spoke up, took a stand, stopped celebrating war and violence? 

 

What if, we worked to negotiate on congenial terms?

What if, we worked at reconciliation and teaching non-violence or respect and speaking truth?

What if, instead of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of our own happiness – it was Life, Liberty, Justice and the pursuit of a mutual happiness together – caring for our neighbors and the world around us – instead of conquering and controlling through wars and power?  

 

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are some great people out there who consider themselves Quaker who are doing just that…but what if more of us really believed that we could make a change? 

 

I don’t think we would be laying down meetings in our Yearly Meeting or throughout this country and world…

I don’t think people would think that Quakers are a novelty or a thing of the past…

I don’t think we would buy into the fear mongering and the American church machine that is married to patriotism and celebrating war…

 

Just maybe that would look a little bit like Job in the Bible…who said,

 

I rescued the poor who cried out for help

And the fatherless who had none to assist him;

The man who was dying blessed me;

I made the widows heart to sing.

I put on righteousness as my clothing;

Justice was my robe and turban.

I took up the case of the immigrant

I broke the fangs of the oppressor.

 

That is what being Quaker is about…and if we did that, it would be about celebrating the people of God and the call to Freedom that we have together. Or as the scripture for this morning stated:

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

If there is one take away, I had from our trip to Philadelphia, it was the fact that we need the Quakers to be Quakers, again in our world!  Now is our time.

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6-23-19 - Raise Your Hand, Open Your Eyes, and Act!

Raise Your Hand, Open Your Eyes, and Act!

Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting

Pastor Bob Henry

June 23, 2019

 

John 9:1-7, 39-41 (MSG)

 

1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” 3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” 6-7 He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed—and saw….

 

 39 Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”40 Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.”

 

 

Back in 2015, a movie was released by Disney Studios titled, “Tomorrowland.”  (How many of you saw it?)  It paid homage to Walt Disney’s dream of creating a better tomorrow and a utopian world where every person has the opportunity to dream, discover, and create.  It was similar to Walt’s original vision of “Tomorrowland” in the Disney Parks or what later became Epcot. 

 

But as you find out early in the movie, many of the people on the Earth have become complainers. People have lost the vision, the dream, the hope of something better. 

 

Actually, Casey, the main character finds herself in high school class-after-class hearing doom and gloom scenarios, while she simply waits with her hand in the air to ask her question. The movie depicts the situations our world is currently in as being in dire straits. As one person put in their review, they made it seem as though we were all “riding this giant space-bound ball to our doom.”

 

Yet when Casey finally gets to ask her question, she asks something profound.  She says,

“I get it, things are bad, but what are we doing to fix it.”

 

Sadly, I think “Tomorrowland” is a bit surreal and hits too close to home at times.  We have become a world of complainers and blamers – and complaining and blaming often stems from our fears.  They are ways to avoid reality or acting on our beliefs, or simply avoiding or ignoring the dire situations we face.

 

Let’s be honest – we all complain and blame. It takes no special talent or skill and often they roll right off our tongues fairly easy.  Yet, acting on our situations and problems is much different.  Responding…or for that matter...raising our hand like Casey to question our motives may be the first aspect of responding.

 

The reality for Casey was that she was an optimist and she believed in a better way. And why was that? This is what intrigued me about “Tomorrowland” –

 

Casey was actually able to see!

 

In many ways “Tomorrowland” is a metaphor for our scripture text for this morning.  I believe there were two different things happening in our scriptures. 1) Jesus is doing a miracle and healing a blind man – but even more 2) Jesus is teaching about the world’s condition and using his healing of the blind man as a picture of our spiritual or mental blindness that is causing the world to suffer and miss the greatness of what God is accomplishing through us.

 

Much like Casey in the movie, Jesus starts off trying to clarify things for his disciples.  And in much the same way, Jesus says, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame.” For Casey it was, what are you going to do about it?  And for Jesus it was, do you realize what I am doing about it?

 

Both “Tomorrowland” and this teaching of Jesus deal with the things that cause our blindness.  Things like…

 

Blaming

Complaining

Judging

Pointing fingers

Second guessing

Unbelief

Unacceptance

Unwillingness to listen

 

Which I believe all stem at some point from the big “f” word -  FEAR.

 

Let’s be honest for a moment. This is what our world, our media, our social networks, sadly even our own religions at times have produced.  We are surrounded by blind people – and sadly many of us are just as blind. 

 

I sense the time is ripe for us, like Casey, to raise our hand…and begin asking for another way.  Or as she goes on in the movie to work to find another way to proceed and ultimately be able to see. 

 

Jesus said in our scriptures, “Look instead for what God can do.  We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent [us] here…”

 

If all we are doing is spending our time on that list (I read earlier: Blaming, Complaining, Judging, Pointing fingers, Second guessing, Unbelief, Unacceptance, Unwillingness to listen) then we will be blind to…

 

·        What God is doing in our midst and around us.

·        What God wants to do through us.

·        And even what God has already been doing.

 

We will soon find ourselves caught up or gripped by fear and blind to God’s work and will.

 

My dream is seeing people of faith – people in this very room – the scholarship recipients, their parents and families, the attenders and members of First Friends, the guests who are with us this morning moved to raise their hands in the midst of trials and tribulations, in the midst of struggles and pain, in the midst of the corrupt institutions and difficult relationships we find ourselves within, in the midst of family struggles, difficult classes, and worrisome news broadcasts, all while stating,

 

I get it, things are bad, but what are we doing to fix it?

 

Being able to see like Casey, must translate into doing something?

 

Even the former blind man in the story says something similar when he says,

 

“It’s well know that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will.”

 

Or as John Philip Newell put it in his book, “The Rebirthing of God,”

 

“We are experiencing a way of seeing that is vital to the healing of the earth. The question is whether we will translate this seeing into action, whether we will apply this awareness to the holy work of transformation…In other words, will we meet this moment or will we miss it?”

 

Now, each of you, scholarship recipients, are here today because a group of people were willing to say like Casey, “I get it, things are bad, but what are we doing to fix it?”  

 

Those people were the Quakers specifically from Indianapolis. And they made a rather surprising decision after the Civil War. They decided to aid dependent African American children at a time when such benevolence was generally extended only to those who were white.  This is how they decided to “fix” the issue. 

 

Before an orphanage or what they called an asylum at that time was ever erected or thought of for white children in Indiana, The Indianapolis Quakers along with our Western Yearly Meeting opened the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children. This was an effort that lasted from 1870 to 1922. History books note that Quaker interest in African American children developed in a time and place in which few whites believed in equality of the races in any respects. The Quakers were the Casey’s of their time raising their hands and finding ways to make a difference. Many Quakers in Indiana were treated badly for their beliefs, other did not participate out of fear.  

 

Now, this is our history Friends, Indiana laws in the early nineteenth century barred African Americans from voting, testifying against whites, and serving the military. They were forbidden to marry whites, attend public schools, and access jobs. Thus, African Americans in Indiana struggled desperately to provide for their children.  And much like the news still today, it is the children who would suffer the lasting effects of the racial terror and violence that the early Black Africans in Indiana would endure. 

 

This Indiana orphanage was known by freed slaves from the south and Black entrepreneurs and was recognized for wanting to give quality care and education to the African American children whose parents could no longer provide for them.  It became so well known in Quaker circles that donations started coming from all over, from other Quaker Meetings in Indiana as well as other states, then businesses, and even from the state government.

 

But it was a large donation by an unexpected donor that is the reason we are talking about this still today.  John Williams was an African American pioneer from North Carolina who settled in Washington County, Indiana, near a Quaker Community.  Unlike most African American Hoosiers who struggled to make a living, John made a substantial living as a farmer and as a rather famous tanner (shoe maker). But sadly, a successful Black Hoosier was not looked at very highly as the Civil War came to a close, and on December, 1864, John Williams became an innocent victim of racial terror and violence and was murdered on his own land at his own door right here in Indiana. Here is the actual account from Quaker Lillian Trueblood:  

 

On the December night when the tragedy occurred, there was a light snow on the ground. The perpetrators of the deed came to the home of [John Williams who they called] Black John and aroused him from his slumbers. He ran out into the yard in his night clothes throwing his purse, which contained a small amount of money, behind the wood-box as he passed.  A shot rang out and the victim fell near his own cabin door, the fatal bullet having entered his back. Since the slain man had just sold a number of hogs, a common belief, for a time at least, was that the motive for the crime was robbery. If so, there was disappointment, as Black John had left the larger part of the proceeds of the sale with William Lindley. There were those who believed robbery to be only the ostensible object of the killing, the real cause being race prejudice.

 

Because of John Williams and his friendship with Quaker William Lindley who he made executor of his estate, there is a Friends Educational Fund for you, our 31 recipients today, and now you know the story behind why we are gathered.  It has been the Indianapolis Quakers and currently First Friends who have protected this estate, grown it, and helped carry on John Williams’ legacy to make a difference in the lives of African American students wanting to pursue college and further their education.

 

Just like Casey from the movie, the Early Quakers in Indiana, and John Williams, who raised their hands and made a lasting change, this is our moment.  This is the moment you and I have been called to as a meeting and as followers of Christ. Will we raise our hands and seek to see with new eyes, to better the world for those we call our neighbor?  I truly believe you and I have been called by God to not allow ourselves to become blind, to not get caught up in fear mongering, but to respond to make a difference in the lives of those around us.  We must hear the call again today to “mind the light” and to truly see, to stand up, and say,

 

I get it, things are bad, but what are we doing to fix it?

 

 Let us pray. 

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6-9-19 - Peter's Vision: What Does it Mean for Us Today?

Beth Henricks

Sources:  Bread of Angels by Barbara Brown Taylor, Shameless by Nadia Bolz Weber,  Sermon by Shannon Kershner of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, and Theology From Exile Volume I The Year of Luke by Sea Raven

I was reading a book 2 weeks ago and the author referenced this chapter that we just read  about Peter’s vision of the blanket coming down from the sky with all sorts of animals for food that he was forbidden to eat by Jewish law.  I hadn’t thought about this story in a long time and it kept sitting with me these two weeks and reflecting on what was God really try to say to Peter in this story and what is God saying to me in the story.  As I continued to think about it and read more about it from various authors, I realized that Acts  and this story in particular is one of the most important ones in the New Testament.

 

The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John highlight the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But what was going to happen to this movement that Jesus had started once he was gone?  When we really examine the 12 disciples, they didn’t hold up well under pressure.  They were pretty weak when tested while Jesus was alive and after his death.  But then the Day of Pentecost comes, and the Holy Spirit comes and fills the believers with power to preach, do miracles and heal.  These weak men are transformed into men of character, vision and strength all from responding to the spirit of God within them.  These disciples along with mostly Jewish followers start to spread this good news of the gospel and set up faith communities in various towns.

 

For many years I didn’t understand that Christianity in its infancy was all about the Jewish religion.  It was mostly Jews that were joining in these Christian faith communities and these converts believed that Christianity was fulfilling the teachings of the Jewish faith, the promises given by God and reforming  the faith.   The Jews had been God’s chosen people and Christianity would continue that storyline.   The resurrection of Jesus was the arrival of the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for.  The conflicts within the earliest churches were between Jews that kept very strict traditions and Jews that had adopted more customs from their Hellenistic surroundings.  But it was without question that  to be part of that early Christian community, one had to at least continue to follow the strict traditions of circumsion and dietary laws. 

 

But a problem began to emerge as the Holy Spirit was coming to all kinds of people including Samaritans and Gentiles.   Was this going to mean that the Jews and Gentiles were on the same footing before God?  Was it possible within the gospel that Jews would have no reason to exclude Gentiles and Gentiles would have no reason to look down on Jews?   Would they really have respect and tolerance for diverse points of view?  How could the Jews allow Gentiles and Samaritans to become members of the Christian church when they weren’t circumcised and ate forbidden foods? How could they be in a faith community together?

 

There were many in the early church deeply struggling with these issues and Peter was definitely one of them.  He had been a devout Jew his whole life, kept all the strict dietary laws even as he became a disciple of Jesus.  We remember a few stories about Peter; walking on the water to meet Jesus but then sinking when he stopped believing, cutting off the ear of the soldier when they confronted Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and denying Jesus 3 times when asked if he was a disciple of Jesus.  However, Peter’s faith was deep and God’s spirit transformed him and he became a leader in the early church and was preaching and healing and showing folks a new way to live in Christ.  But he  struggled with Gentiles becoming Christians unless they were willing to adhere to the Jewish traditions.  In Acts 10:28 Peter says, “You do understand how it is forbidden for a Jew to associate with or to visit a person of another race.” Jews were not even allowed to have a non-Jew in their home or visit the home of a non-Jew. 

 

All this changed when Peter received his “leading” from God.  In that moment of spiritual awakening and understanding, Peter has a visual image of a blanket coming down from above with all kinds of restricted animals.  He hears a voice telling him to kill the animals in the blanket and eat them.  Peter’s response was a strong no way would he violate his Jewish covenant.  The voice commands him 3 times to kill the animals and eat and finally makes one of the most astounding claims in all of the new Testament.  What God has created is not unclean.   This vision changes everything for Peter and also it changes forever the purpose and life of Christianity.   Peter was told that one of the most important elements of his faith no longer held true and that he must discard it. 

 

The non-Jew but God-fearing man of Cornelius shows up at his door after the vision.  Peter realizes in that moment that he must step into his spiritual awakening and welcome the man into his home and then travels to Cornelius home.  He declares to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-35 that he  truly understands that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

 

This is radical stuff to the community.  How could centuries of tradition be tossed aside?  Peter knew how much this would change everything in their religious and social culture and that their foundation and identity would be split wide open.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story in her book, Bread of Angels.  She helps us understand the huge issue the dietary restrictions were to Jews by saying, “Imagine anything that, for you, is the dividing line between Christians and other people – the one thing that makes us who we are, that is not negotiable, that we cannot let slide without letting slide our whole identity as people of God.  And when you have figured out what that is, get ready to let it go.”

 

 This story is a story where I fall in love with Peter because Peter believed in the idea of continuing revelation and listening to the Divine Light within to radically shift his belief system.     With this vision to Peter and Peter listening to God’s voice, the norms that guided their religious community would reject exclusivity and restriction and explode with inclusion and radical hospitality.   Peter’s actions and declarations did not go over well with his Jewish leaders in the community.  They felt that he had sold out and had crossed a line that never should have been crossed.  He had violated the law and that could not be accepted.  Peter explained to them how God had spoken to him and revealed this so clearly and how could we stop the Spirit moving in new directions within us.

 

I was reading a sermon by Shannon Kershner of the Fourth Presbyterian church on this topic and I love what she says about what Peter was feeling about his vision.  “Peter knew he was in the house of a Gentile because of God. He had not wanted to come. God’s Spirit had compelled him into that place with those people.   Suddenly all those people—the ones he avoided, the ones whose politics made him sick, the ones who scared him by their difference, the ones who bored him with their normalcy—all of them received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same gift he and his fellow Jewish Christian leaders had received. Apparently, without asking for permission, or asking for approval, God simply decided to give the same gift of new life and intimate presence to those outsiders, just as God had given it to Peter and the other insiders.”

 

What is in your blanket that you are holding onto so tightly and can’t let go today?   Who are we keeping out or separating from, rejecting, demeaning and ignoring?  I have been asking myself this question all week and I see  a few people that are in that blanket for me. 

 

And what about our First Friends faith community and the wider Christian church?  What traditions are we holding on to that God is telling us to let go? Who are we collectively rejecting and excluding? 

 

Barbara Brown Taylor in her story says, “How often in the church do we try to say where the Spirit may or may not blow, when the only thing God has asked us to do is to try and keep up with it wherever it goes?”   Where is the spirit blowing with you today?  Will we keep up with the spirit here at First Friends?

 

I ask that you reflect on these questions as we enter our time of waiting worship.  If God is speaking to you directly please hold that message tenderly in your heart and reflect on what it means and what you do with it.  If God is giving you a message to share with all of us, please be faithful and stand and wait for a microphone to be brought to you.

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