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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“For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up”

Psalm 75:5-6 “For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up; for it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.” NRSV

As i consider our situation in St Louis, that for years our church has advocated for more regional shelter and resources and instead we’ve seen the tragedy grow. When I consider that our own shelter has been ruled a detriment despite the fact that we raised over a 100k for our defense and I spent 18 mos. on call to gather files and mount a defense, it makes me wonder where our hope lies. Have we sought our hope within the legal system, which is easily manipulated by the rich and powerful, instead of God? Or have we just exercised our rights as citizens, raising money not simply to defend ourselves, but the many thousands who we help? Now we have filed a federal lawsuit against the city itself and we will have a hearing. This is a very expensive way to simply exist, and it takes away from much needed resources.
I am reminded in this Psalm that God is the One who executes judgment. As I consider what Michael Brown’s family is undergoing at this time, when they looked to the highest law in the land for justice and got the verdict that Darren Wilson is not guilty, acted within the law to use deadly force, I know that our redemption is not from our government. I recently sat with Steve, a brother in my church who is facing cancer. They found a lump in his jaw that it turned out was a tumor, and in removing it he was hospitalized. (He still awaits Medicaid, by the way.) Now he walks with assistance and can only rest to recover. And because he doesn’t have a phone or transportation, us pastors take him to appointments and he uses my phone. He’s looked after by all the brothers here in his room. He said to me, “I asked the Lord for healing, and if chemo and radiation are what it takes then I figure it’s worth it.”
And that word inspires me, that when we pray and believe God, and then take action as citizens to advocate and represent ourselves, we are never losers. Our situation may be uncertain, but we know God is in control. The real focus of Scripture is not the evil in the land. It is not corrupt politicians or the functioning of government. The focus is on God’s action to save. Scripture is salvation history.

I fully expect that even as so much of our advocacy, though right in front of the public eye, is overlooked or forgotten by the majority of our region’s fair citizens, our efforts are not for us or for them, but are for God alone. Before God we can honestly say we did all we could to bring the message “when I was a stranger, did you take me in? What we do for the least of these we do for Jesus.” Our question is not: What will we do next to take on the injustice in society? But rather, in serving Christ how shall we show His love in this world which is chasing frivolity and rewarding injustice? Lawsuits are the least we can do. It is an important something, but it is certainly not the same as our daily service. “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”

For too many suffering people life is a nightmare. It can only end where we act intentionally out of the love and suffering of Christ. “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.” Lk 4:18 (NIV) How this gospel of justice ever became a sanguine, domesticated, feel good American religion is beyond me.
There were many who did not welcome the transformation and healing that Jesus brought about in His own day. And it is no different now. But if we understand that our redemption is bound up with the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, we can understand what good news it is indeed.

I must still ask myself the question: Am I of any use? Have I let the world harden my heart and soften my body? Am I “laying my body down on the gears and the wheels on the levers and on the whole apparatus to make it stop!?” (Mario Salvio, 1964) Or am I affirming the system and the machine? Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:2)

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New Sermon: Who is my neighbor? Who is my enemy? by Rev. Chris Rice

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

Dear Friends,

There are few things more difficult than being opposed, especially when we are trying to follow the will of God. When you were a child, did you ever find a set of blocks and build a tower with them? And when you were just about to set the last block on the top of your tower or wall or house, can you remember another child coming over and knocking down your handiwork? How did that make you feel? Really angry, really sad, right?

I remember one Sunday sitting with a child in children’s church who just wanted to play by himself. We took a lot of time setting up a building together, and there was this other boy that made it his mission to come and destroy it. No matter how hard I tried to stop him, he found a way to come over and knock the blocks down. His fun that morning was in ruining our work.

As we set out to do the will of God, Jesus makes it clear, we will be opposed. It’s not a matter of if, but when. And what are we told to do in response? Love our enemies. On one level this doesn’t seem to make sense. Isn’t it just arming the devil to love those opposed to the work of God?

Why set out to do anything for God if someone can come along and attack and destroy that work? Then Jesus says I’ve got to love that enemy? Love for enemies is at the heart of the redemptive work of God in Christ. And Jesus means for us to take him seriously on this point. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer:

Heavenly Father, we come to you and ask that you make us eager to listen and obey. You know that we live in a world that is opposed to the Light of Love. Jesus promised that in this world we would have trouble. But then He said, “Be of good courage. I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33) So we ask that you grant us courage this day. In you we are overcomers! And your Love abides in us to accomplish this. Have your way in us completely. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Our Lord Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Let us take his words and let them sink deeply into us. In Leviticus 19:18 the Bible says, ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” And in Psalm 139:21, 22 it says, “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”

As we consider how to love our enemies, first we have to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor and how do I love them as myself?” Or, in other words, the people that I share the land with, who are they to me? Am I “my brother’s keeper”? We cannot love our neighbors without careful, deliberate intention. We cannot just be alive, caring only for ourselves, and think that because we are not at war with our neighbor, we love them.

The second consideration in loving our enemies is, “Who am I in relation to my enemy?” Am I doing the will of God? Everything that God requires, He provides. The question is, am I seeking my own interests or the will of God? If I’m serving Jesus than the only enemies I have are Jesus’ enemies. Jesus loves his enemies and died for them to redeem them into the Kingdom.
I dare say that our first problem in loving our enemies is actually in defining our neighbors and then our enemies.

When I was a kid growing up I used to say to my sisters and to other kids in the neighborhood, “Jesus says I have to love you, so I do. But he didn’t say I had to like you, so I don’t.” It is often easy to set the hard teachings of Jesus aside, like this one, for our own comfort. Some people are more difficult to be around than others, we might say, so I’ll deal with them the best I can, but I don’t have to like them. That sentiment shows just how far we still have to go in loving Jesus.

Jesus didn’t say we’d always feel like loving. That’s not what love is all about. He said,
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”

I’m a firm believer in “greeting” all people because they have in them the image of God. What did it mean to greet or “salute” someone in Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s day? It meant addressing them with respect and honor by name. For Jesus’ disciples it meant that he knew them well and even gave them new names, like Simon, whom Jesus called Petra, or Rock. Paul would start and finish his letters like this, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And Jesus said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (vs. 47) This is why it is wrong to pick favorites among the people we serve. This is why it is wrong to treat others only the way they treat us, instead of “as we would want to be treated”, as Jesus said.

It is wrong because my neighbor is the person God has placed before me to humanize and greet. The image of God in them, as difficult as it may be to see, is a gift that I must not meet with derision. When I mistrust someone made in God’s image, the stranger, the alien in the land, my neighbor, I offend God, and it offends the image of God in me!
George MacDonald, the fiction writer, poet and pastor, said, “But the question must be put to each man by himself, “Is my neighbor indeed my enemy, or am I my neighbor’s enemy, and so take him to be mine? — awful thought! Or, if he be mine, am not I his? Am I not refusing to acknowledge the child of the kingdom within his bosom, so killing the child of the kingdom within my own?” Let us claim for ourselves no more indulgence than we give to him. Such honesty will end in severity at home and clemency abroad. For we are accountable for the ill in ourselves, and have to kill it; for the good in our neighbor, and have to cherish it. He only, in the name and power of God, can kill the bad in him; we can cherish the good in him by being good to it across all the evil fog that comes between our love and his good.”

So when you look someone in the eye and call them by name you are performing a great service for them. You are acknowledging the power of their presence, and acknowledging their very existence. Don’t you understand that we live in an age where people are afraid to look each other in the eye for fear of their safety? As vulnerable people, especially poor people, we need and yet are afraid of eye contact. We’re afraid of people getting too close to us. We’re certainly afraid of being touched or hugged. This is why it is so important that we do this for one another in church. Our strength comes from building each other up in the Lord.

When Jesus said that our Father in Heaven is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, we can rest assured that the Love of God is stronger than any evil system that perpetuates bitterness, hostility, and animosity. Our God delights in redeeming people from their sin and transforming them into loving persons who cannot become overcome by fear, suspicion, resentment or bitterness. He does this in us, not through heroic sentiment or the example of godly individuals, but through believers in community who demonstrate confession of sins, repentance, and healing forgiveness every day.

Left to myself I can never love my enemies, and neither should I. As a child of God I am not meant to be alone or do anything alone, and neither are you. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19, NIV) and “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (5:30) I have learned from other followers in Christ, including my Father and Mother, how to love my enemies. I’m not saying we’ve been perfect at it, but together we’ve learned not to be overcome by bitterness. My mother, Penny Rice, in an article she wrote for the New Life Zoa Free Paper, told her story:
“As 1990 came to a close, I found myself dealing with public criticism of our ministry by community leaders, financial setbacks personally and in our work, close friends who seemed to turn their backs on me, tragic disappointments among co-workers and the increasing problems of so many who had nowhere else to turn. The Grace of God that I had enjoyed swimming in during 1989 was abandoned as I allowed myself to succumb to fear and resentment…oh, how this bitter, weary heart of mine longed for a cure for its life-destroying disease…Fortunately for me, and all those who are sick with bitterness towards circumstances or people who have hurt them, there is a powerful cure for this deadly cancer. And this cure is effective even in the final stages of this disease. Here is the prescription:
‘Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive].” (Col. 3:13, Amp.)
Jesus Christ, the One who paid for our sins by offering up His sinless body as a sacrifice on our behalf, said this: “For if you forgive people their trespasses [their [a]reckless and willful sins, [b]leaving them, letting them go, and [c]giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15, Amp.)
Wow! It would be better to die from organic cancer with a clear conscience and forgiveness from God than to let my soul forever be tormented because of unforgiveness! How foolish it is to allow bitterness to fester inside for even one day. Many, who now reside behind prison bars because of one reckless act stemming from bitterness, are learning how true this Scripture is: “But if you have bitter jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry, selfish ambition) in your hearts, do not pride yourselves on it and thus be in defiance of and false to the Truth.
This [superficial] wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual (animal), even devilish (demoniacal). For wherever there is jealousy (envy) and contention (rivalry and selfish ambition), there will also be confusion (unrest, disharmony, rebellion) and all sorts of evil and vile practices.” (James 3:14-16, Amp.)
Having been an observer throughout my life of the destruction that cancer can bring, I now rejoice that God has provided to all of us the cure for the most devastating of all cancers. If we forgive all the hurts in our hearts and rest in Jesus’ loving arms of forgiveness, you and I can truly say, “Ravaged by cancer….no more!”

She didn’t know as she penned this, that sixteen years later she would face another battle with bitterness and separation in marriage. She didn’t know that she would face cancer that would end in a holy Christian death. What she did know was that Jesus would lead her all the way—and he did! After much hard travail she and my father were reunited in their marriage and rededicated in their vows. She ended her life on this planet in love surrounded by her family who loved her. What more could any of us ask for? She faced our final enemy, death, with courage and gratitude.

For my part, I look back on that time as a touchstone for me. If God brought us through that, what can’t he bring us through? What won’t he bring us through? This was Paul’s confidence in Romans 8:31-39. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In 1980, while performing the Mass on live radio, Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in San Salvador. The year before he wrote: “If I have the joy of possessing heaven, I would not mind being in that heaven near to those who today declare themselves my enemies, because there we will not be enemies. I am never anyone’s enemy. But let those who without cause want to be my enemies be converted to love, and in love we shall meet in the blessedness of God.”

We have to face the fact, as Jesus did, that evil cannot be reasoned with. Our love and obedience to Jesus pose a threat in this world because they remind all those blinded by the devil that their rule is temporary. Their hatred cannot last forever. Their pride, money, fun, games, and popularity are as shallow as their memory. What really endures is love.

Let us pray: Lord, make me aware of neighbors, friends and enemies. Grant me the capacity to love my neighbor as well as my friends, but also give me the strength to love my adversary. Teach me to love myself so I can learn to love my enemy. Teach me to love without compromising my faith and principals. Help me to understand that there are those in this world who do not love me, do not respect me, do not care for me, and want to hurt me. Bless me with the wisdom to understand why my enemy does not love me. Grant me the ability to love my enemy without letting my enemy hurt me. Bless me to beat down my enemy, but to beat them down in love, without becoming my enemy! Teach me to respect my enemy even though they may not respect me. Teach me to be gracious and good, yet wise as a serpent with the gentleness of a dove! Help me to work to bring my enemies around to the table of peace. Encourage me not to settle for evil when good is what I should strive for. On that day when my enemy becomes as David would say, “My footstool”, help me not to gloat with insults and derision, but to welcome them as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen (by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Hood, III)

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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