The Gospel Jesus Preached

Friday Sermon 8/14/15“Jesus Came Preaching God’s Kingdom”

by Rev. Chris Rice

Mark 1:14-15; Matt. 4:13-17

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,

    Galilee of the Gentiles—

16 the people living in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

    a light has dawned.”[a]

17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

Introduction

You might be surprised to learn that, the American Civil War, which claimed the lives of at least 620,000 combatants, took a while to actually end even after April 9, 1865. When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, the news was heralded that the war was over. But not until after the final battle on May 12 at Palmito Ranch in Texas, did the fighting cease. Similarly the Emancipation Proclamation was first signed by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 but the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially abolishing slavery became law on December 18, 1865. Many people heard the war was over long before the last shot rang out. Many slaves heard that they were free long before slavery was actually abolished.

The Good News that God has not left us humans to our own fate, that indeed, despite how we have hurt ourselves, one another and the world around us, that God loves us and sent His own Son, Jesus to herald a new heavens and earth full of righteousness, has come and is coming. Looking around now, even as the disciples did the night of Good Friday, we can’t necessarily see with our mortal eyes that Jesus has won the battle and that God’s Dominion has broken into our own space and time. We have confusion and questions and doubt. But we can also know that things will never be the same.

Dear Father in Heaven,

We need a fresh word from you. We need to hear anew the good news that Jesus believed, embodied, and preached. I ask that you reveal yourself to us, and that you open our hearts to receive this word. Set us free from all those things that would keep us from being changed into Christ-likeness.

In Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

 

1. Jesus said “The Time Has Come”

John the Baptist came preaching repentance and a baptism for forgiveness in preparation for Jesus. So when Jesus said, “The time has come,” it meant that John’s word of what was “coming” was fulfilled in Jesus’ words about “now”. He told the woman of Samaria at the well, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:23-24) Her reply to him was that she knew that when Messiah comes he would proclaim all things. And then Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:25-26) Jesus knew his calling, who he was and who sent him, and how to reveal himself at the proper time.

Time is a strange concept to us humans. We have this linear view of time that effects our understanding of outcomes. We know that we’re here in our mortal bodies for a short period, but we don’t really want to believe that. We know that we’re born and as we grow older we learn more about our mortality every day. Some of us lose our parents early on in our lives. And the reality sets in, I thought my mother would be here longer. And then it gets a bit scarier, doesn’t it? Wow, it could all be over in an instant. The impact I thought I was going to make may not be as deep as I thought. This planet is gonna keep spinning and people are going to be born and die and who is to say what my part in that is?

Because we know our time is short we have this feeling that we’ve got to be making the most of it. And when things don’t go the way we expected we might get stressed, depressed, exhausted, and lose hope. It can often feel like time is our immortal enemy, because we don’t know the future, and our understanding of the past and present are only partial. If history has proven anything it’s that we Americans view time differently than previous generations. When the dollar is god, as it seems to be in this world, every nanosecond of time can be construed with monetary value. “Time is money.” The railroads here changed our concept of time in the 19th and early 20th century and it became more important within our culture to be “on time” than to be present at all. If your train couldn’t be “on time,” the time set by the station masters, than your goods were basically useless.

With this view of time, that you can never gain more and are losing it all the time, our world moved into the Industrial age. Time became the universal rush to the next station, the next deal, the next meeting, etc. When time is linear in this way, success is determined by outcomes. We get to thinking in absolutes about whether an outcome is successful or unsuccessful. Whether our bodies are perfect or imperfect. Whether we’ve been useful or un-useful. And our thoughts tend to usually go to the negative, no matter how much temporary success we achieve, there’ll be more uncertainties in our future.

Enter the gospel proclaimed by Jesus. He said, “The time has come and is coming.” Now what does that even mean? Jesus came in the fullness of time, he knew his calling, and he did and said only what the Father showed him. He was not a man who came to shatter the law, suspend time, use people, demonstrate power, and then change everything. As creator of the world, he knew that time is meant to serve people, but that things had gotten twisted. Remember way back in the garden with Adam and Eve? How important was time to them? They knew sweet fellowship with God and they weren’t meant to die. There was no shortness of time.

In simply obeying God’s will and proclaiming the Kingdom, or another word would be the Domain of God, Jesus spoke of a different reality that God understands. While God cares about our daily affairs and that includes time, he is not limited by our understanding of the past, present and future. And Jesus saw fit to proclaim that his Dominion extends from his present to our present. It’s interesting that the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are together called the Gospel. They are not four different gospels, taken together they are the Gospel.

To get the big picture of what Jesus preached we have to get to know each one. In the first three Jesus begins his public ministry after John the Baptist is imprisoned. In the fourth gospel, however, John shows us the beginning before the beginning. Jesus makes wine for a party at Cana, even after telling his mother that it’s not time yet. So, if you really think about it, where we try to fit the story of Jesus into a linear model of prophecy, birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and where many preach as though the crucifixion IS the only part of the story that matters, the Gospel (all four books) are much more concerned with WHO Jesus is than what he did.

Jesus, the Lord of time and eternity, entered our seemingly finite world of space and time and proclaimed that God’s Kingdom was both present and to be revealed. And while people were still checking his credentials, he accomplished the will of the Father and fulfilled all that could not be accomplished in time through Temple worship by becoming the Lamb of God. Then God raised him from the dead and he became the first-fruits of what will be the glorified new heavens and earth. In a word, God in Christ showed us that the right time for proclaiming His kingdom is time as God intended.

2. Jesus said, “Repent”

Repentance is not a familiar word anymore. Maybe you have never heard of it. But it is crucial to understanding the gospel. In our day we think that the accumulation of knowledge leads to better outcomes. Across the way outside these doors is an inscription on the side of the public library. It reads, “I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people because they only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. A taste for reading drives out lower tastes.” These immortal words of Andrew Carnegie assume that with a library on every corner and knowledge available to all, no one need be poor. The poor will know where to find work, that work will be given to them, they’ll know where to find housing, they’ll remain employed and housed and we’ll all live happily ever after.

Carnegie also said of wealth, “Yet the day is not far distant when the man who dies, leaving behind him millions of available wealth, which was free for him to administer during life, will pass away “unwept, un-honored, and unsung,” no matter to what use he leaves the dross which he cannot take with him. Of such as these, the public verdict will then be: the man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced. Such in my opinion is the true gospel concerning wealth, obedience to which is destined someday to solve the problems of the rich and the poor, to hasten the coming brotherhood of man, and at last to make our earth a heaven.”

I dare say, in his view of knowledge and wealth, Andrew Carnegie had no room for repentance. He thought that we can make heaven here on earth if we just wisely use our wealth. Yet history has shown that instead of closing the gap between the rich and poor, philanthropists have created a nonprofit industrial complex in the billions of dollars that keeps hold of money for the “greater good” in search of those persons who truly deserve it, who won’t be “pauperized” by receiving it. Jesus proclaimed the Gospel by saying “Repent!” Repentance means to turn from the direction we’re heading in because it’s wrong! We might believe it is right, it might be the way the whole world is heading, it might be the way we were taught by our parents, by our schools, by the books we read and the television we watch, but it’s still wrong! Wealth cannot save us! Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon.” And Carnegie’s gospel of wealth has become the prevailing gospel in this land.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which indicates a complete turning. Jesus came to change our hearts entirely, to make us new persons, people capable of right love for God and one another. Now the only way repentance is possible is to give up whatever else we are serving. Jesus said we can’t be a slave to sin and free to serve at the same time. Service God’s way means that it’s not on our own terms. Without repentance, any service we render will be with selfish motives. Without repentance we can’t agree with God about how success or outcomes should be viewed. The popular narrative about Christianity these days is that Jesus came to make us nicer people who are more clean-cut, better citizens, living healthy lives, don’t divorce, raise well-mannered kids, and all vote Republican. That idea is severe limitation on what the Dominion of God looks like. We’re not here simply to make others conform to certain limits, but rather we’re all meant to be transformed into God’s likeness in Christ.

Repentance doesn’t mean “become nice” or “become clean”. It means give up! Surrender! Turn! You know you’re not what God wants you to be. You know this ain’t heaven here on earth. You need a Savior! Right where you think you don’t need a Savior, that’s where you need Him the most! And just as the Kingdom or Domain of God is here and yet coming, so we learn that repentance is a beginning that becomes a walk of discipleship, or constantly shedding our old beliefs and habits and turning to want to do the will of God. In my own life as a young man I thought of sin and temptation mainly in terms of sexual misconduct and impure thoughts. That left a lot of room for other types of sins that I thought weren’t as big a deal. As I’ve grown older in learning to be like Jesus, I find I have to continually turn away from hostility, impatience, and a host of other sins that get in the way. I turned from sin, and I’m still on that road to this day.

3. Jesus proclaimed, “Believe the Good News.”

What was the Good News that Jesus proclaimed? What made it news-worthy and what made it good?

The good news is that this world, as we see it and experience it with our natural senses, is not all that there is! There is a different way to be and there is a different future to expect. When we repent and turn to Christ we can actually see God’s hand at work in the world today. The Good News that Christ proclaimed was not simply that he would die for our personal sins so that we could reform and become better people. His proclamation was not that we needed to simply accept him as our personal Lord and Savior. The Gospel was not then and is not now a four point plan of personal deliverance, amendment, and affirmation.

The reason Jesus’ news was good was because this passage was fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isa. 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19) This was not just a message of personal change, but of freedom, healing, and God’s favor! The people eagerly wanted this message. But what became evident as Jesus preached in their synagogues, was that this message was also going to be controversial. When he preached in his own hometown of Nazareth, Luke tells us the people tried to throw him off a cliff.

“28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:28-30, NIV)

Why did they get so upset? Because he brought them a word of judgment and of the need for repentance. So they rejected him, and he walked away. He wasn’t the Messiah they wanted after all. And yet he did not give up, he knew his ministry was just getting started.

What does it mean that we should believe the Good News? Quite simply, when the proclamation is made, the hearer must choose whether to accept the word or reject it. In accepting it, belief involves being “all in”, and staking one’s life on this assurance of God establishing His Dominion at this time. In John 8:30 it says that as Jesus was speaking many believed in him. But then a dialog ensues where Jesus lets them know what believing really required. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” When Jesus said we must “believe” it meant more than mental assent. To believe means to cling to, trust in, and rely on the truth that Jesus has accomplished and will accomplish all that God desires.

4. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, here now and also yet to come in fullness.

I think there are misconceptions about God’s Kingdom. It has been thought to refer only to heaven, or to the Church, or to social justice, and some talk about it as a spirituality that is an inner awareness of one’s own divinity. But when we really read what Jesus said about it, it’s not a kingdom with a castle and moat or with guards to protect it, but it’s referring to how God’s royal authority and power have come on the scene.

 

It’s important to recognize that Jesus taught that the Kingdom is not created by our own efforts, but is something we receive, when we change and become like children. (Mark 10:14-15) Healings, such as sight given to the blind, feeding 5000 people, dead people being raised, were a witness to the reign of God on earth (Matt. 11:4-5) But the healings themselves were pointing to the power of God, not to a Messiah who would reign from his earthly kingdom.

What Jesus preached and lived did not fit in keeping with the prevailing speculations of the coming Messiah. With the Maccabean revolts just before the time of Jesus, it was thought that the Messiah would give his life for the nation and fulfill the role of the suffering servant, but that he would then rid the land of Greek and Roman influence so that the people would have peace. So when Jesus came preaching a Dominion of God that involved, humility, love, servanthood, and ultimately Jesus death for the sins of the whole world, even his disciples were confused.

Conclusion: The most important message I can declare to you is the good news of Jesus Christ. He taught us that if we want to be somebody in God’s Dominion, we’ve got to humble ourselves and get low. He taught that we are truly blessed when we are poor in spirit. That the things we really want to be are the things this age thinks have no value. Mourning, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, Purity of Heart, Peace-making, and persecution for righteousness sake are the distinctives of those who are blessed in God’s Dominion. (Matthew 5:3-11) Personally, I find that the Word of God and my faith in Jesus Christ has ruined me to the other gospels of this world, the gospels of wealth, health, housing, employment, achievement, education, and notoriety. If Jesus lived humility and obedience to God’s will than why should I seek out anything else?

Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together, now.

 

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come, 

thy will be done, 

on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 

And forgive us our trespasses, 

as we forgive those

who trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 

but deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom, 

and the power, and the glory, 

for ever and ever. Amen. 

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Why NLEC can’t shrug its shoulders

32 beds or 34 it doesn’t matter. That’s what this federal case all comes down to in the eyes of the city and the interveners. The interveners maintain that NLEC applied for a permit in 1976 for 32-34 beds and that it was wrong to ever go over that number without applying for more. It’s a technicality. They maintain this has nothing to do with the homeless or social justice or where people will sleep or even NLEC as a church. They also maintain that NLEC should not have more than 32 persons. If it got down to 32 all its problems would go away. In focusing on that number they hope to win all battles. Nevermind that NLEC has a history with the city of inspections and documents for nearly 40 years. If they get a judge to agree its about one number they figure they win.

But what would this city look like if NLEC had complied all these years? How many would have never been impacted with hope and a future? As a minister I don’t relativize bodies assuming they find help somewhere. I don’t rely on United Way or Salvation Army to minister. I don’t assume that for the sake of “quality of life” that sending someone away will improve their situation. 

In this matter I believe that doing less and believing better will come IS the problem and is disobedient to God. 

In the 1980s the city claimed through the harshest winters there was no homeless problem.

In the 2000s the homeless couldn’t prove residency to get service.

Just this year the city claims it is the region’s largest advocate for the homeless, providing nearly all services.

What if NLEC had never been involved? Would the homeless be better off?

I can’t see that as an option. My whole life has been filled with family on my life journey with people who had no roof of their own. The experiences of those being mugged, beaten, murdered, stigmatized, and ignored as homeless has always loomed in my past and present. 

They want us to shrug and walk away. Churches have been doing it for years. The city, counties, and region can do it. Why can’t NLEC? There’s the calling, the God factor, the human factor, and the hope factor. 

We won’t shrug and walk away because Jesus is Risen and our suffering is redeemed. 

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Not angry at God today

I’m not angry at God because of the suffering in the world. I’m not mad at Him because I don’t have more money. I’m not made because of the poverty I see, the sick people, the hungry people, the mentally ill, the violent and rebellious ones. Today I’m not lashing out at God about it. I know that He knows that everything is not yet as it should be. I believe in God’s Justice and in His patience. I believe that just because everything is not resolved now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be resolved later. This morning, in reflecting on Isaiah 26:12-21, I marveled that the prophet speaks of things seen and things to come he can’t personally know of. He speaks of them as though they are all the same world: the past, the future, the present.

If I did not believe that the God who truly understands time and eternity truly cared for all of His creation then I would be angry. Why must any suffer, even for a moment? Why can’t everything be ordered rightly at all times? And yet, how would we understand life as it is without the wrongs we endure? Where does our sense of order and right come from? Life is for the living, breathing, struggling, coping, angry, sad faces who live it. Love in theory is a wonderful thing. In reality it is a dreadful thing, that reckons with far more longing and emptiness and pain than fulfillment.

I’m not angry at God because for today I’m content with the mystery of His ways. I could not imagine a better world than He if I tried. I certainly could not create it. The world I make for myself is flawed and frail at best. My attempts at communicating only result in half-speak. I can never clarify enough. I can’t make you understand. But I will try.

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Reflections on Refugee Sunday

Reflections on Refugee Sunday
Yesterday was Father’s Day at my church, and it was also Refugee Sunday. I got some rest, yesterday. But, as I always do, I find myself working, if only in my head, on the nut that can’t be cracked, which is the struggle of being human while poor. As my pastor spoke about the plight of millions of people across the world in war torn countries, I thought of the homeless I know here in St. Louis, who no one thinks of as refugees. I know many of them as friends, as my extended spiritual family. Many of them have grown up knowing me. They consider me kin in a way. And these days we are numbered together as an ignorant lot who don’t know what’s good for ourselves. Why do I say that? Because I work for New Life Evangelistic Center, a church located in Downtown St. Louis. Depending on who you talk to, I am regarded as a pastor who lures people into poverty and keeps them trapped there so I can make money for myself personally. They call me and my father poverty pimps. Some who are homeless see me that way. Some who are condo owners in the neighborhood see me that way.
But how do I see myself? I’m a child of God and all I want is to see all God’s children cared for, to know that they are loved. That this world can be a place of loving care. Where we do all we can to see our neighbors succeed. Sadly, I work in a neighborhood where the definition of “neighbor” has changed. An organization was formed some years ago called Neighbors of NLEC, Inc. It is a nonprofit organization developed to raise support to litigate to have our occupancy permit removed. Being a good neighbor to them is getting rid of the riff raff, namely us. I have friends come up every day and look me in the eyes and say, “How are you, really?” As though they expect me to collapse in front of them and cry. I do get angry. I do get stressed. And what this whole legal battle has shown me is the complexity of some things that should be very simple.
It should be straight-forward that people need a roof over their heads, food to eat, transportation, meaningful work to do, and a means of support relationally. At my Sunday church, New City Fellowship South, we help refugees from places like Eastern Congo and Liberia resettle in St. Louis. We dedicate pastoral staff, deacons, and other resources to helping them reintegrate locally. I learned yesterday that something like 35,000 refugees will be coming to the USA from Eastern Congo. Many will settle in St. Louis. It might never occur to these refugees to ask if St. Louis has its own homeless people here already. The job of the International Institute is to help these to never experience homelessness here. The reality is that some do. Our country is a land of safety, a land of opportunity, a land of peace, where neighbors help one another. That is what we like to believe about ourselves in this country.
In 2002 Danielle Koyama wrote a paper called “Internal Displacement: A Study of Homelessness in the city of Toronto” in which she looked at the United Nations definition of “Internally Displaced Persons” with an eye toward homeless persons in Toronto to see if they met the definition. She wrote from firsthand accounts with persons she knew. She wrote of how the city of Toronto gentrified a neighborhood with a homeless shelter in it and how fifty men were displaced and moved elsewhere. I think of this paper often and I wish there was a way to let my refugee friends from other countries know what’s going on here at home. Why would I bring it up to them? They fled the violence and instability of their homelands, why would they want to know about it here?
As I sat and listened to Pastor Kevin, on Refugee Sunday I heard anew the Word of healing, of redemption, of salvation. The gospel is good news for a world of instability. Psalm 61 says, “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent forever. Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!”
Refugees, persons who have to flee their homes to avoid violence, having their belongings confiscated, or being evicted by the local authorities, they cry out to God as it were “from the end of the earth, with faint hearts.” Who remembers the refugees? Who remembers where they lived in their homes? They used to be settled, their place was secure. The threat of moving was the furthest thing from their minds. And now they live in a new place, far away, in “the end of the earth.” Refugees teach us just how fragile it is to dwell in houses that can be easily destroyed, on land that can be confiscated or gentrified, among people who are silent up until the time they face you in court and say that you are a detriment to the neighborhood.
God is our rock! There is no safer place to be than in the hands of God, doing the will of God. “Let me dwell in your tent forever. Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings.” To think that God’s tent is our dwelling forever. That His wings are our refugee shelter. There is a confidence in the kingdom of God, that whatever is needed He will provide. I love it that God’s habitation is referred to as a tent here. God is on the move with His people. We cannot expect that God identifies with the established empires of this world. That his interests are in keeping them wealthy, well fed, and safe. That His order is their order and that, as is often assumed, “the poor will come to their senses and begin to live like everyone else.”
Poverty is a constant state of protest, that all is not right in the world. Being poor can never be normal, no matter how hard we work at it, because we know that in an instant we might be stranded, wounded, sick, or beaten up. We might lose a critical document, like our identification, and suddenly our business will be so much harder to do. Being poor means navigating a world not made for us, but for people who are secure. It means knowing that after 9:00pm at night anything we do without shelter is illegal. We cannot live in the parks. We cannot live in the street. We cannot relieve ourselves. We cannot sit, lie down, make a covering for ourselves. We will be forced to hide from the authorities. Refugees indeed. And this in a country that welcomes refugees from other lands!
You might ask me, “How do you fit yourself in there with the homeless who sleep in the street? Surely you have a roof over your head.” And its true, I live in a house I do not own. It has running water and electricity. I drive a car I do not own. My family and I are relatively secure. But every day I meet with people who slept last night in the street. I get phone calls from people whose electric bills will soon be shut off. I high five with children who have only known shelter life and living house to house with family. And as I see it, I can never truly be at home in a land that cannot care for all its people. I do not arrive to save these people everyday. I’m no white knight on a horse come to protect them. As I see it their future is bound up with my own. Together we struggle to survive, and I learn from them, how to take refuge under the shadow of God’s wings—how to dwell in His tent.
What makes this hard is knowing that there are way to many people for me to spend time with. On Monday and Tuesday of this week I may have to get through a stack of meeting requests an inch thick. Simple requests for things like verification of shelter stays, need for bus tickets to get to medical appointments, special requests for clothing, shoes, and food. But this is my time to catch up with people like John or Philip who have been staying in our shelter and on the streets. I listen to their aches and pains. I see the wounds on their hands and feet. I see them pull wadded scraps of paper from their pockets, and sometimes I hold the papers for them. And I realize that I may be the one person today who really listens to them, who makes a connection that lets them know they are valued. That someone knows their plight and is on their side. And on Monday and Tuesday I don’t have time to see all of them. Some of them write out a request and then leave when they see how many more people are coming in for help after them. They leave when they see how long it takes at times to help with one request. Some can’t bear to sit in a sea of strangers, they need air, and after I call their name and they don’t appear, I write N/A for No Answer at the top of their request. Maybe they will return. I wish I could know that John and Philip had rest from all their striving. This is my prayer for them. That they could find rest in God’s arms.

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I’d Rather Sleep In The Street

One afternoon last week, a married couple came into the lobby of our ministry with a letter in hand. I recognize the letter by its envelope. It’s from the local Traveler’s Aid society. I see a lot of these letters. They are written after an individual or family have appealed through this aid society for emergency funds to travel to a destination by Greyhound where they will have support. It could be to a family member, to a friend, or to one’s own apartment, assuming someone is at a phone number nearby to verify. The letter tells me that they are stranded here in St. Louis and need support to afford a trip home. The Travelers Aid Society provides the voucher to the bus station and we are one of a handful of organizations, working together, who contribute to the fare. Depending on where they are going it can be quite expensive. Quite frankly, there are times when we have no funds at all to assist and the person has to stay until they can get a job and make enough money to travel on. And sometimes that’s not possible because of their disability. When I saw this married couple I stepped aside to meet with them personally.

The woman speaking told me of how a church in Colorado had all but $90 raised to get them to South Carolina. It wasn’t enough so they settled on St. Louis. I explained that we had some, but not all of the money to send both of them the rest of the way. And upon hearing that we could not get them on a bus that day she burst into tears. I try to be compassionate and measured in these situations. I don’t want to seem uncaring, and I don’t want to be overly sensitive. It’s not easy. I begin listing possible options for further assistance. I give the name and location and contact person of another church that assists. I point out that the amount they need to raise is for a Monday through Thursday bus ticket. She’s still crying. She wants on that bus now.

Finally I mention that we could provide shelter through the weekend, though we weren’t set up to accommodate couples. And this is when the conversation really changed. “Nuh uh, I’m staying with my husband. I’d rather sleep in the street. No way.” I politely told them that this would take time and that the choice was theirs. Then after processing their paperwork, I walked away.

“I’d rather sleep in the street.” The words now ring in my ears. Should I be offended when people tell me this? Should I consider them ungrateful? Should it make me doubt the sincerity of their need?

I really didn’t think much about it when it was spoken. But its just that I’ve heard these words so often repeated about our shelter and also other shelters. I know this couple have never met me before. They’ve never stayed for shelter here. They don’t know anything about it really. But when I mention “shelter” they recoil. They can’t be separated as a couple.

I understand their fears, I really do. If it were me in a strange city, appealing for help from a church I don’t know, stranded and scared, I might feel the same way, so I sympathize. But my sympathies won’t keep them safe from these cruel streets. When I think of the words of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I believe that my offer of shelter, though refused, is what I would want another to offer me. But what I also realize about the words of Jesus is that others are very different from myself. The good I would do may not be received as the good by them at all. Some people will not want an encounter for their good. They just want some quick cash.

Every house, be it a church or a family home, has rules and social guidelines. No smoking, drinking, drugs, weapons, fighting, cursing, etc. Someone has to clean the house. Someone has to attend to the food pantry and to the money. If the house is to survive someone has to care for it. In community, which is what our church is, an intentional community, we agree that we are each responsible not only for our own behavior but for the good of the house overall. So when something needs doing we all pitch in, albeit in different ways.

I’ve never looked down on anyone who refused to live in community. It’s a difficult life. It took many years of living in community for me to learn to ask for help. I’ve always wanted to do everything for myself. I just didn’t have the patience for letting someone else attend to my needs, not when I could get it myself. So I can sympathize with people who don’t like asking for help, and then refuse the help that’s offered.

But just because I understand these things, doesn’t mean that as one who offers the gift I will value the gift less, or will want to alter the gift because not everyone wants it. The gift of shelter is not for everyone, I know that. But many people do accept and appreciate it. They prefer to have a roof over their heads and they don’t consider it an indignity for it to be a free roof. They actually enjoy the experience and they have a degree of comfort in it for a time. They know its not the same as their own home, but it will do for now. And on that day when they do get their own place, I’m rejoicing for them.

Giving and receiving in this context is itself a gift. It’s a gift because life itself, every day is a gift from God. I cannot give what I do not myself have. And I cannot appreciate what I have unless I realize it is a gift.

Along with the gift of shelter come many other gifts. Food, prescription assistance, reading glasses, bus tickets, blankets, hygiene kits, and clothing. We give them because we receive them and receive them because we give them. We learned that last year we received far more in In-Kind donations (things people give with monetary value but that are not money, like clothes) than in cash. Those types of donations involve a wealth of people to receive them and process them and redistribute them. It’s the difference between having a pile of rags or a rack of neatly hung clothes to offer. When I consider that fact, I realize that NLEC is engaged in a life affirming work that appears unsettled all the time. We’re always a little unraveled. But I’d rather be unraveled than locked up tight.

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Meet Kenneth

I want to tell a little story about a man I’ve been meeting outside the building at NLEC. When I come into work in the mornings I see him standing on the fire escape outside our building. He’s not there loitering, he’s warming his hands under the dryer vent. He’s not causing problems. He’s alone. I walk up and ask him his name and I introduce myself. I’m a firm believer in the power of greetings and listening. I ask him some basic questions about himself, and he opens up.
I’ve not seen him before in the neighborhood so I offer assistance in learning his way around. I learn from Kenneth about the things he cares about. He tells me he feels frustrated because he can’t hear well, he’s partially deaf. He has trouble remembering things. He tells me a little about his recent history. Drinking years ago led to permanent problems with his memory. And that problem comes up as we talk because he can’t remember what he just said, or what I just said. I try not to ask too many questions, but I let him know where he can get a meal, where he can get access to a nurse, and I encourage him to get his recent “scrip” filled and get his meds because his seizures won’t go away.
A week later I see Kenneth outside again in the morning, and I ask how he’s doing. He remembers me as a friendly face and I try to keep the conversation short. I encourage him to come in the building later and we’ll talk more. Later on he asks for a private space where we can talk and I find an empty room off our lobby. He gets serious about his business. He talks about committing a crime so he can get locked up or committing suicide. But then he says he prays everyday and thanks Jesus for another day alive. I ask him if he wants to do God’s will. And he asks how he can know what that is. I assure him that God wants him to be alive and to see his health improve. God doesn’t want him to be so alone. And he questions whether that is true.
We talk about various possibilities relating to his needs. We discuss a plan to check in at another shelter tonight. We talk about his discharge instructions from the hospital recently. And the conversation comes back to the fact that he just wants to get his money at the end of the month. He wants out of this town.
I point out the fact that his seizure disorder is quite serious and that he should try to get his prescription filled. He says, “But my urine problem is so bad that I can’t ride a bus.” I looked into Metro’s Call A Ride for him but learned that appointments are backed up and it would cost $13 dollars each way to get to the hospital. He settles on bus tickets and instructions on which bus to take.
I’m not convinced he’ll make it there today, or that he’ll do anything. This is what it’s like here. Missouri has a grave disability clause in Mental Health services. A person has to be willing to harm themselves or another person before they can be committed involuntarily for treatment. In Kenneth’s case he has an organic brain injury. It doesn’t fall under the usual classification for mental illness treatment anyway.
I might be able to get him into a residential care facility, so we discuss that as a possible plan. He wants all the money from his debit card at the first of the month to travel. Even though his seizures could kill him without medication, he won’t consent to treatment. He goes to the hospital every time he has a seizure. They learn he has a “scrip” and they discharge him with care instructions.
There’s got to be a better way. I place calls to other mobile outreach providers and they take his name and location down. But when he won’t go to his appointments or get his meds there’s not much more they’ll do.
This is the face of homelessness that the government claims to have the answer to. He could easily qualify as chronically homeless and be placed in permanent housing. But no one is going to hunt him down and force him to take his meds and lock him in his apartment. That’s not how it works.
Does the public know how it works? Please keep this man in your prayers. And pray for a more just society here in Missouri and in our nation.

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I Believe! Help my lack of faith.

 

 

 

“I believe! Help my lack of faith!” (Mk. 9:24)

by Rev. Chris Rice 

John 14:1-8; John 16:25-33.

 

Dear Friends, 

One of the things I really love about the Gospel of John is that he takes us inside the room and replays the conversations Jesus had with his disciples about what was going to happen when he was crucified and raised from the dead. I love it because it is clear they are on a journey of belief, and they haven’t arrived. They thought they understood what it meant to follow Jesus. But as he talks about himself and the Father, and where he is going, they open their mouths and the confusion spills out. And then when they understand, and accept Jesus’ words, he lets them know that there is far more to come. 

So often we speak of faith and belief in very wooden and confident terms. And we only talk of doubt or lack of faith very impatiently, confessing that doubt may be present, but that God is always trustworthy. We’re afraid to talk about how we’re really feeling. Afraid that in talking about our problems, our fear and doubt will overcome our faith, and we’ll be lost. 

Let’s go to God in prayer now:

Heavenly Father, 

We come to you just as we are, perhaps half-heartedly, full of suspicions, fear, anger, and shame. We ask that you open our spiritual eyes to the wonders you have given. Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus, and bring to our minds the truth that we need. So that forsaking all else, we will cling only to your word and place our trust, our desires, our longings, solely in your hands. Have your way in us. 

In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Faith is a gift from God. It is not something we can buy, something we inherit, or something that a lot of education can bestow on us. I can’t pretend to explain how it works, except to say that God puts in all of us a sense of wonder and longing. We know that the truth is out there, and we have a lot of different ways of finding it. Our hearts are restless until they can rest safely in God. But we live in times where the words faith and belief are confused to be the same thing. When someone commonly says, “I have faith”, what they mean is that they have an assurance of something they can’t see. When someone says, “I believe” it can be taken as another way of saying, “I think, but I have no way of knowing for sure.” Now when the person says, “I know”, and with confidence, it’s understood as less of a stabbing in the dark and more of a way of describing their real experience. 

In the book of John Jesus spoke with the authority of one who knew what he was talking about. And this could be really disconcerting even to his closest friends, because they had no other frame of reference for his words. In John 14:1 (New Living Testament) Jesus said, 

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4And you know the way to where I am going.” (NLT)

But they didn’t know, and Thomas was brave enough to speak up about it. 

5“No, we don’t know, Lord,” Thomas said. “We have no idea where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. 7If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”

The way, the truth, the life. The only way. In our day and age, these words sound too narrow. 

There’s a popular comic on the internet of Jesus standing at a door knocking, 

saying, “Knock knock.”

and the answer comes, “Who’s There?” 

And Jesus says, “It’s Jesus. Let me in.” 

And the answer comes, “Why?” 

Jesus say, “Because I’ve come to save you.” “From what?” is the reply.

And then the comic Jesus says, 

“From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.” 

This is how many people think of Jesus, someone who wants to come in and steal away their sins…or else.

First we’d like to imagine that we’re safest in the four walls of our own mind. We don’t need anyone or anything else, because we humans are fundamentally sound creatures who are doing a great job with what we have. There’s not really much evidence for that, but we feel pretty good about it, and it works for right now, so why change?

Jesus says, “If you really know me, you know the Father.” 

Belief is a fickle thing, and faith is nothing at all without the Father who gives it. We all place our trust in many things, beginning with our own reasoning, our abilities, and in what we can know from experience. And we question everything.

8Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Sadhu Sundar Singh, a Christian evangelist from Northern India, told this story “of a poor grass cutter who found a beautiful stone in the jungle. He had often heard of people finding valuable diamonds and thought this must be one. He took it to a jeweler and showed it to him with delight. Being a kind and sympathetic man, the jeweler knew that if he bluntly told the grass cutter that his stone was worthless glass, the man would either refuse to believe it or else fall into a state of depression. So instead, the jeweler offered the grass cutter some work in his shop so that he might become better acquainted with precious stones and their value. Meanwhile, the man kept his stone safely locked away in a strongbox. Several weeks later, the jeweler encouraged the man to bring out his own stone and examine it. As soon as he took it out of the chest and looked at it more closely, he immediately saw that it was worthless. His disappointment was great, but he went to the jeweler and said: ‘I thank you that you did not destroy my hope but aided me instead to see my mistake on my own. If you will have me, I will stay with you and faithfully serve you, as you are a good and kind master.'” (From Wisdom of the Sadhu, Plough.)

Thank God the Father that he did not come as we had expected Him. We come to God with all of our accusations and failed expectations. We come to Him looking for a reflection of ourselves. And when He’s not what we expect, we get frustrated and want to give up. Belief in Jesus means sticking around long enough to get confused, afraid, lonely, angry, weary, and yet hang on with expectation for gratitude.  True Belief is simply another way of saying, “I know that I am loved, that I belong. And even where I don’t understand, I’m staying.” 

Over time in the same setting, two chapters later, after Jesus had washed their feet and Judas had left, Jesus said, 

25“I have spoken of these matters in figures of speech, but soon I will stop speaking figuratively and will tell you plainly all about the Father. 26Then you will ask in my name. I’m not saying I will ask the Father on your behalf, 27for the Father himself loves you dearly because you love me and believe that I came from God. 28Yes, I came from the Father into the world, and now I will leave the world and return to the Father.”

29Then his disciples said, “At last you are speaking plainly and not figuratively. 30Now we understand that you know everything, and there’s no need to question you. From this we believe that you came from God.”

31Jesus asked, “Do you finally believe? 32But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:25-33, NLT)

Seeing how the disciples finally say, “we believe you came from God”, even where they had been with Jesus for so many years, might cause us to snicker and think, “How could they be so dull?” But instead let us look at ourselves. In what ways have we been with Jesus, seen him doing wonderful things around us, and yet have become slow of heart, confused about what’s next? It should not come as a surprise that Jesus’ disciples were learning to believe. It should come as a relief. God uses slow people, impatient, angry, ugly, sad, disorganized, frustrated, anxious human beings. And he is loving and patient enough to see the faith he gives us through the fire of life. 

Jesus question, “Do you finally believe?” comes to us aloud today, and I hear it not as an accusation, but as the assurance that our Lord, who knows my slowness of heart, and knows the road that lies before me, knows that the faith He has given, is strong enough to endure. Peace. Jesus tells the truth and offers peace.  How terrible it would be for us if Jesus had told us only what we want to hear. If he had said, “You will arise every morning full of sunshine, and your path will be laid about with moonbeams and rose petals. I will take all trouble from your mind and everyone will love you because you belong to me. And if anyone dare oppose you I will provide the political power for you to destroy your opponents. They will know you are followers of mine because of the glory that will follow you.” 

Sadly, I sometimes think that’s what many church goers want Jesus to say to them. Instead he promises us many trials and sorrows. Marked by sorrow, by trial, by the cross. And yet, we followers of Jesus are called to take heart, to rejoice, to be exceedingly glad! Because Jesus has overcome the world! 

Why do I believe in Jesus when life is hard? Why do I continue to accept His invitation to follow hard after him, when I find that I am accused falsely of all kinds of wrong? The daily service is not noticed by adversaries and I can’t seem to make my intentions clear to my family and friends. The devil would accuse me that I’m doing it wrong! The temptation to give up is in the corner doing push-ups. Is this really the Abundant Life? Surely there’s an easier way. 

I can tell you from experience that I have been the one who did quit, time and time again. I was the resentful one, the hateful one, the mocker, the one who stood aside and watched “all the hypocrites”. And that life led me to ruin. I believe in Jesus because life is hard! Because my faith is not contrived but is a gift. Because I belong to a worldwide body of believers who will not shrink from seeing this world in all its brokenness, and will not give up. God’s Spirit is alive and active on planet earth, caring for creation, blessing all that God calls good, and loving Him with our whole heart, mind and strength, living to His glory! And yes, calling sin—sin, repenting and turning from wrong to do right. 

I believe that the invitation to follow Jesus means being led by His Spirit into an adventurous life, where we don’t know what’s coming next, but we DO know that Jesus is RISEN from the grave and has opened up the reality of a past forgiven, a present redeemed, and a future victorious for all believers in Him. To believe is to live in worship, knowing that “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3, NLT)

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