Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

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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Sermon: Content with the Miracle

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CONTENT WITH THE MIRACLE
12/13/13

Psalm 37:7-9 NRSV
7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land.

Dear Friends,
My little girl has a problem. She really wants this particular art set for Christmas. But from looking it up everywhere online she has determined that it is out of stock, so she knows she can’t have it. The more she thinks about this, the more upset she becomes. She moans out loud and writhes around on the couch holding her tablet device. “I really want it”, she says.
It’s that time of year for wanting and not knowing, not realizing her wishes. She asks me about it and of course I can’t answer any questions about Christmas gifts. I usually bow out of knowing what everyone is getting every year, because I don’t want to divulge anything and get myself into trouble. So I have to be hopelessly vague. “Honey, you just have to trust that your family has your wish list (it’s hanging in huge letters on a list that takes up half of the refrigerator) and knows what you want and will do the right thing.”
That answer does not satisfy this 11 year old. Ten minutes later she asks again, “Dad, can you look up this art set on your computer, please?” “No.” She no doubt feels like I don’t care, and that her wish will never be realized. I cannot say one way or the other whether her wish will come true. I have to wait with her for her miracle until Christmas Day. Yes, it is irritating. No, it is not the end of the world. I’m told that delayed gratification is a wonderful thing, and yes, when I think about it, that’s true.
My daughter is not the only one who has a problem with not knowing what’s coming. Life has too many surprises. Too many unknowns for my comfort. And all the speculation and longing and yearning doesn’t necessarily lead to hope, faith, or trust. It often leads to stress, fear, resentment and doubt. What good is there in not knowing outcomes?
We all have a longing for security and stability. We want to know that there will be a good return for our honest effort. Our text from Psalm 37 addresses our tendency to fret about outcomes. The people of God saw the way evil people prospered in their way. They were angry, bitter, fretful, and distracted from loving God. And then they were taught this song, which is part of our Christian canon. “Be still before the Lord. . . Wait patiently for Him. . . Refrain from Anger. . . . Forsake Wrath.”
I was really tested recently, as I am quite frequently. I want to share what the Lord spoke to me when I humbled myself before him and took the day to listen in prayer and really read his Word.
You see, I got hit with an avalanche of hurt all at the same time from different directions. I got so angry and fearful that I couldn’t see straight. I said out loud, “I’m so tired I can’t take it anymore. I feel like I’m going out of my mind.” I said, “If I show up tomorrow it will be a miracle”, so you are looking at a miracle today. Praise God. God spoke six truths to me:
1. I need the Lord’s LOVE for all my FEAR.
2. Read Psalm 37:8-9 and accept it.
3. I confessed my sin of ego, anger and faithlessness. I said, “Lord, as sick as I am, as hard as my heart has become, I repent and turn to you to fear your Name. I will no longer look to the left or the right, but I will look to You! Forgive me. Help me.
4. I told the Lord I was afraid of the immediate future and he led me to this quote from Karl Barth: “That which has happened once for all has the power of divine presence. . . The church’s recollection is its expectation.” I heard the Lord saying, “What I accomplished on the cross has not changed. You can expect life, love, hope, and a future. Rejoice!” “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever!”
5. I told the Lord, “I will not give up my HOPE. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Have your way in me O Lord.”
6. Finally the Lord assured me that displacement is not failure, but Christian communion. I read this quote from the book Compassion: A reflection on the Christian Life, “It is in following our Displaced Lord that the Christian Community is formed.” In Philippians 2:1-11 we learn that Jesus emptied himself, was displaced himself, made vulnerable. He obeyed even in being mocked, beaten, ridiculed and crucified. Then the Lord gave him a name above every name! His displacement led to glory. When we suffer displacement, the death of reputation, the scorn of our peers, betrayal, misunderstanding for Christ’s sake, we are truly blessed. We are in the right fellowship.
One of my frequent complaints lately has been, “It is not fair that we absorb so much hostility in this place from all sides. I get it from those we serve, from friends, from fellow workers, and from the neighbors.” But nothing compares with the hostility within myself. In my unsurrendered self my ego becomes so large that I imagine life itself is a cosmic trap, an invitation to joy, that ends only in failure. That I am a failure. That to try is simply to become betrayed by the game. Then, with some help, I discover that all is Grace and that choosing not to love is not really an option. I need love. This is not all about me. I accept your Love, Jesus. Thank you.
There is much to loathe about poverty. Much to loathe about homelessness. But loathing the people instead of loving them only hurts myself. Yes, I freely confess that at times I come to resent the very people I’m called to love and serve. And what follows that is that I start loathing myself. When I speak out of the bitterness of my soul I learn that I’m not alone. And the people I want to run from begin praying for me and lifting me up. I have a friend who says that he went to Florida to retire and instead began his largest ministry with the homeless mentally ill ever.
In the Scriptures we have God’s example of patience, anger, and longing. Again and again where God seems angry, ready to destroy his people and start all over, he is actually using his people to intercede and find new mercies in the heart of God. Through all life’s changes the one constant is the new mercies of the Lord. And that is what Love looks like. It’s not syrupy sweet, it absorbs all of life’s brokenness and hostility and replaces it with Life and Faith.
Henri Nouwen, faced with his own mortality, wrote in his book, “Beyond the Mirror”: “In case I die, tell everyone that I feel an immense love for all the people I have come to know, also towards those with whom I live in conflict. Tell them not to feel anxious or guilty, but to let me go into the house of my Father and to trust that there, my communion with them will grow deeper and stronger. Tell them to celebrate with me and be grateful for all that God has given me.”
When I read Nouwen’s words from Jesus in this book, “Come, don’t be afraid. I love you”, I immediately began praying for people I have been resentful towards. I want them to know the love of Jesus. I want them to not be afraid. I want them in heaven too. This is the Grace of God. This is what it means to love my neighbor as myself. I must accept Jesus’ freedom from fear in order to truly be a neighbor. In order to offer hospitality I have to accept that the way I make my meal, my bed, my room is different than my neighbor’s way, but that God’s House has room enough for us all.
This is what the psalmist meant when he said, “those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.” (Ps. 37:9) I give up my fretting and the Lord does the work of abolishing hatred, strife, bitterness. He has made his Peace in Christ. His word never returns void, does it?
Isaiah 55:6-11
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

You and I are only failures if Christ’s work wasn’t done on the cross. Christ won the victory on the cross and proved God’s goodness and faithfulness! If God is faithful then in Christ you and I are always a success.

Andrew Young, the civil rights activist who became the US Ambassador to the UN said, “I have found that when God calls anyone to a task, there is usually a larger plan of which any one person is only a small but significant part. The way is already prepared. There are problems and challenges to be faced, but these are often there to help us grow stronger. It’s as though we’re constantly tested and must prove ourselves worthy or at least able to bear the burdens of that particular responsibility.”
Sometimes the secret lies in letting go. Knowing that I can’t do it all, but that I can do a few things well, loving God and loving my neighbor through God’s Spirit. The task won’t be any less demanding for us, but God is no less able to use us.
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” (1 John 4:19) and that he alone “gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”
We have a heavenly Father who only gives good gifts to His children ( Matt. 7:11, James 1:17). He assures us in His word that He has won the victory in Christ (John 16:33) and that we have a future in a New Heavens and Earth (2 Peter 3:13) if we’ll only trust Him. In Christ He has broken into this world of ours and poured out His Spirit guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:22). It is no secret. This is the real meaning of Christmas. Jesus is victory incarnate! We celebrate that fact year round, not just on December 25. And God’s victory in Christ is our real Hope. We need not wrestle in longing, looking here or there for victory in different places. We can be still before the Lord, knowing that Christ has given us everything we need. We can be content with this day’s miracle and the joy of knowing He is our victory!


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True Order

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever” This prayer uttered again and again in the Daily Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer reminds me today that the Presence of God is unchanging. God is my grounding. I think of the phrase I utter aloud and to myself, “That’s just the way it has always been” in reference to human nature, to capitalism, to murder, to theft, and to poverty. As though disorder were the only real order there is. I know that I can’t say this to God. Sin is not an order. Sin is rebellion against the real order of things. In praying the prayer I am saying, “God you are all that is really true. I trust not in myself or my church or my city but in You for what is eternal.”
Yesterday I said, “What I want for my birthday is a new mayor in this city, but I don’t think it will happen.” My misguided thoughts place elections within my personal tastes and my tastes in politicians in my list of birthday wishes. In worshiping the Living God I acclaim His eternal order of all things and know that he is accomplishing his will here and now. My desire is poverty of spirit, to mourn, meekness, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, to make peace, and to be persecuted for righteousness. (Matthew 5)
O Lord let me so hunger and thirst for your righteousness, that in obtaining it I might rejoice in the persecution that results.

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The Holy Spirit Our Advocate

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​11/8/12
“The Holy Spirit Our Advocate”
John 16:1-15

Dear Friends,
This morning my daughter and I stepped out of the front door of our home and exclaimed, almost at the same time, “Whoa!” A mist hung in the air and was visible even up to the porch. She marveled that she could barely see her way to the bus stop. We were caught unaware. Hadn’t we ever seen a misty morning before? Yes, but it still excites the imagination. Autumn is my favorite time of year, but when it is cold and wet, I confess I would much rather be indoors.
I confess that I have much to learn about many things. I want to speak to you today about things I barely know about myself. Living by faith is full of mystery. Not the kind of mystery where you have to figure out “who dunnit” but more the kind where you seek to follow the hand of God with only three feet on the path in the mist before you and only enough provision for today.
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 16, Jesus sits at his last meal with his disciples and begins to reveal the end and the beginning of the divine plan to them. They had been following him down all the dusty roads of Palestine, through fields and onto hills, and even on dangerous roads. They’d heard and seen unbelievable things. My friend Bob often says, “I think I stick around this place because I never quite know what is coming next,” and I’m sure the disciples felt a bit like that too.
“What kind of crazy adventure will today bring? What leper is going to wander up to us? What blind man will start yelling Jesus’ name and not stop? Are we going to have to fight the children off of Jesus? Will he disappear overnight and then come out walking on the water and scare us half to death? Where to next, Lord?” But in our text today Jesus says he is going away to the Father who sent Him, to a place they cannot come, and yet that this will be a good thing.

“All this I have told you so that you will not fall away.2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me;10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (Jn. 16:1-15, NIV)

Jesus says that after he leaves the Holy Spirit will come to lead them into all truth. He calls the Spirit the Paraclete, which means Comforter, and Advocate. Today, as I think about that word Advocate it brings many things to my mind. We might think of people like lawyers, doctors, social workers, activists, politicians or preachers as advocates. In this role they represent a person or a cause before the involved powers that be and try to get them access to services or benefits. A lawyer might advocate for leniency before a judge, a social worker for shelter for a homeless client, and a preacher might advocate for better work and fair wages.
The kind of comfort and advocacy Jesus says the Holy Spirit will bring, however, sustains the disciples in the midst of a hostile world that is very content with sin, unrighteousness, and self-love. The Apostle Paul said, “We know that the whole creation has been moaning together in the pains of labor until now.” (Romans 8:22, NIV) This is not just a dark and wicked world, it is a world loved by God. The Holy Spirit never gives up his loving work in the People of God. Every day that Jesus does not “drop the curtain” and bring all things to an end and a new beginning is a new day in which the people of God are used by Jesus to accomplish His work.
I’d like to take a close look at John 16:8-11. In his role as our advocate, the Holy Spirit defends us “in court”, as it were, before the world. The world is wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment. We had been told previously that we could expect persecution from religious and nonreligious people alike. Without the Holy Spirit there is no way we could endure the onslaught from the world. On our own we’d come to think ourselves crazy, alone, abandoned by Christ, and overcome by the devil’s power.
These verses tell us that the Spirit will show the world that it is sinful, bent on its own way instead of Christ’s. Here in the 21st century, there is not a lot of talk about sin. We hear about terrible things happening every day, but not that these are a result of sin. This morning for example, a prominent senator exclaimed that something must be done about climate change. When fourteen foot walls of water overtake the east coast of our nation, we must take it seriously! But as I listened to his sound bite on the radio I thought, “How many times have I heard this before?”
Climate change is man-made and it is sin! We are using this world up like toilet paper and remain in denial about whether or not that should change. We say, “Somebody should change, but not me.” Americans worry about India and China being overpopulated and polluting the planet, because they want to keep their own standard of living, and consuming in excess. That’s just crazy! More than that, it is sinful! God wants us to bless the earth he created by honoring it with our presence. We honor it by growing our own food, using biofuels, consuming less, and showing our elected officials that less is more!
This is just one example of sin in this world. The Holy Spirit guides us into representing the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in this sinful world. The world thinks it knows what is right, but Jesus, who has gone to the Father, demonstrated its righteousness was a sham. Self-righteousness is the worst kind of delusion. It calls wrong right, and turns virtue into sin. Being self-righteous is like believing in a 36 hour day. You can set yourself a 36 hour schedule, but you’ll find yourself at odds with the universe. Time and space will be your enemies.
The world is wrong about righteousness. Jesus is the righteous one, the Holy One of God. The world’s standards of justice are very short sighted. There is no universally accepted picture of what it means to live gently with one another, especially when the universal vision of the modern world is to extract, commodify, own, defend, consume, and make obsolete. The Holy Spirit directs us to Jesus Christ, the righteous lamb of God, who demonstrates his victorious power through submission. Being God, he humbled himself. There is no way to be humble and self-righteous at the same time. A truly humble person is willing to be found righteous later and yet humiliated and thought unrighteous in the present. The only way to be truly humble is through the righteous one, Jesus Christ.
Finally, the world is wrong about its judgment. The world condemned Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter preached these words: “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go” (Acts 3:13, NIV). Where the world had condemned Jesus, Jesus said, “The prince of this world stands condemned.” The devil, the accuser, tempter, and deceiver, is the great loser. He was defeated on the cross and all his works have been revealed for what they are. The devil can’t really build anything good, and those who believe him can only keep up the deception for so long. Jesus Christ is Victor! Hallelujah!
What I hear Jesus saying about the great Advocate here is that where I feel alone, utterly sinful, misunderstood, inadequate, and incompetent, the Holy Spirit will lead me back to the truth of who Jesus is. If I want to be a good advocate for other people, say for instance, in directing poor and homeless people toward places, people, and services that offer temporary and long term assistance, I will remember that Jesus Christ is really what every disoriented, homeless, lonely soul needs.
I have met so many individuals who can’t be at home anywhere because they can’t find rest in Jesus. I can give all of my time and effort to persuade people to do the next right thing, but if I am not led by the Holy Spirit, I have done them no favors at all. Sometimes, because I point people to Jesus, they won’t bother to come around me at all, because they know I care about them body and soul and they don’t want to hear me tell them the truth. No one belongs on the corner with crack in their hands. No one belongs huddled in a doorway in the rain intoxicated with an empty stomach. Because of sin this way of life that doesn’t work, is the only life many people think they want.
I cannot advocate for anyone who will not advocate for themselves. I can want the best things in the world for you, a clean home, warm clothes, a loving family, good supportive friends, a good job that pays enough for you to live off of and then give to others in need. I can want you to grow in the Lord within a local church where you learn to serve Jesus and lead others to Christ. But if that is not what you know want, then what I want for you would only be misery.
Many people want some of these things. They want a house and money, but they also want the kind of friends around that will destroy the house, spend all the money and leave them feeling angry and hurt. Others want a good job where they can work all the time and afford anything, but they don’t know what to do with themselves in their off hours.
My work as a minister means preaching a revolution of the heart. You are not the sum of what you eat, buy, and watch. You are a person who can bless the world around you with gratitude, affirm the goodness of God’s creation, and share the presence of Christ in you with every other person you relate to. These gifts are powerful because they come from and lead to a powerful God!
Thomas Merton said,

“We make ourselves real by telling the truth. Man can hardly forget that he needs to know the truth, for the instinct to know is too strong in us to be destroyed. But he can forget how badly he also needs to tell the truth. We cannot know truth unless we ourselves are conformed to it. We must be true inside, true to ourselves, before we can know a truth that is outside us. But we make ourselves true inside by manifesting the truth as we see it.” (No Man Is An Island, pg. 198)

I began by telling you that living by faith is a life full of mystery. The longer I live the more I’m conscious that I have much to learn. I know that Jesus Christ is righteous and that God alone is true. I also know my own propensity to dishonesty. My heart often strays from God. If you believe these things to be true for yourself, I ask that you pray with me:
“Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Friday, Feb. 3 sermon, “Sick as our secrets”

We Are As Sick As Our Secrets

Dear Friends,                                                                                      Feb. 3, 2012

Here at NLEC you hear us say again and again that churches are not doing enough for the homeless in our regions. If you watch Channel 24 you have probably heard it for years; to be a Christian is to obey Jesus by sheltering Him in the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting those sick or in prison (Mt. 25:31-46). Today I want to talk about what I believe is one of the primary reasons Christians don’t open their church doors to the homeless. There is a social stigma regarding mental illness and disability.

Christians, like other Americans, and sometimes in ways that are worse than other Americans, are afraid of people with diseases like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, those who are clinically depressed, and those suffering from a mental disability or developmental disability. Persons with mental illness or disability very often don’t feel welcome in the church where they were born. If the illness develops as they grow up, the confusion they feel is met with confusion by friends and loved ones, and the church becomes a place to be feared rather than a place where they are welcomed.

I can identify with my brothers and sisters in Christ who are afraid of disorders and disabilities. I certainly don’t claim to be the most tolerant person in the world. I was that kid on the playground making fun of the “slow” kid. I too am impatient and angry and fearful very often. As a young man, I myself was diagnosed with clinical depression and placed on medication. I didn’t want to take the meds, my wife had to lovingly coax me into taking them. Over time I improved to where I no longer needed them.

The years I’ve spent serving alongside homeless Christians with mental illness and disability have marked me for the rest of my life. People whom I love have suffered violence (but thankfully not death or impairment) from some with a diagnosis who lied about the nature of their condition. I watched my mother get slapped in the face by an angry woman with a severe mental disorder. And yet I’ve also been marked by the great love, mercy, and patience I have witnessed from those in recovery. I’ve experienced a level of courage, honesty, and resilience among these people that is unparalleled in any church of “normal” people I’ve ever attended on Sunday.

I don’t think I was really awakened to the nature of mental disorders and how I should respond until my best friend decided to stop taking his medication. My friend had been diagnosed with a form of bipolar along with an anxiety disorder and moderate brain damage from injury. He’s probably one of the smartest and funnest guys to be around that I’ve ever known. There came a time when I had to drive him to his therapist and do an intervention with him. He was not sleeping or eating, and he was having suicidal thoughts. I and other members of my church were so worried about him. He was on the line between suicide and sort of caring for himself, but only because we were around to remind him to lay down and drink water.

I remember when we sat there in the therapist’s office together and my friend Joseph (not his real name) was so lucid and clear in his speech in answer to questions, that I helplessly watched as he almost talked himself out of the help he needed. InChicago, in order to receive inpatient treatment you have to demonstrate that you are a danger to yourself or others. He denied that he was suicidal and he wouldn’t relate the thoughts he was telling us. Finally I asked the therapist if Joseph could leave the room. They both agreed. I described in detail all the symptoms we’d observed for weeks, how he could not manage his meds himself and how suicidal he’d been at times. The therapist agreed to have him hospitalized.

I felt like I was betraying my friend, even as I was helping him. That only increased as I and members of my church went to visit Joseph in the psych unit on and off for weeks. For some reason, though there was a large yard outside, the staff would never let him or the other patients outside. We watched as winter turned to spring and yet Joseph couldn’t go outside. Finally his meds were straightened out and they let him go home. I was there to pick him up upon release, and I still felt guilty. Our church demonstrated true friendship, and in the months and years that followed he has thrived and excelled in so many ways. He is fully recovering and even tapering off his meds now. I consider him a hero because of what he journeyed through, and I’m so blessed to have been a part of it. Like me he’s not perfect, and though we don’t live close to each other any more I still consider his one of my most valuable friendships.

Along this journey of intervention, hospitalization, and recovery my eyes were opened to so many others who lacked the kind of support Joseph has. Some lack it because they want to struggle alone. But this one brief journey taught me that mental illness and disability are not things to be feared, but are opportunities for the power of Christ to be revealed in miraculous ways. Those suffering are all around us in society and in the church. Listen to these statistics from the booklet “Mental Illness and Faith Community Outreach” from Mental Illness Ministries (miministries.org),

“According to the National Institute of Health about one in four people have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. One in 17 suffers with persistent and severe mental illness. Death by suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 and over 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Four of the ten leading causes of disability are mental disorders.

At least one third of people who are homeless have serious mental illness. According to Department of Justice reports, over 50% of the people in prisons and jails have mental illnesses. Many persons with mental illness lack adequate housing, lack job opportunities, or lack basic needs such as essential health care and supportive services. Some are living in nursing homes or institutions that only provide basic services or worse. Others are living in family homes or by themselves, feeling isolated and disconnected to society.”(pgs. 4-5)

As a society we don’t like suffering. We are in collective denial about this issue, and even those suffering from it would like to deny it and often do deny it on and off. Family members, preachers, politicians, doctors, social workers, old people, young people, have all suffered in the past or are currently suffering. So many are on medication now for everything from severe depression to a bipolar disorder that we don’t even ask about it really. Perhaps we reason that nobody needs to know. The only time it becomes a problem is when someone is adversely effected with it, or when at least one addiction makes things worse. Then nobody can deny something is wrong. But like it or not we collectively suffer by our denial and pushing each other away. The toll this takes on our workforce, on our behavior as families, and our ability to worship and serve is huge. Denial only makes things worse. With denial comes greater suffering, which only perpetuates an insane endless spiral of pain.

The good news about mental illness is that despite the social stigma, those suffering can be treated and come to live happy and stable lives. They can even recover from severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar to the point that they can serve as sources of recovery for other people. This is what is happening in clinical mental health services these days. People who have been sick and homeless for many years are getting housed and connected with ongoing care in exciting new ways. Men and women who I’ve known since childhood who were what is termed chronically homeless have been housed and are living independent lives now. The kind of suffering they’ve endured and come back from gives me hope that mental disorders and disability need not end with suicide or endless squalor. And these men and women represent a faith in God to me that gives me strength to keep on going. They are true heroes.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came not for those who are well, but for those who know they are sick. He came not for those who think they can see, but those who know they are blind. This places the neediest among us in the best place to receive recovery and then become agents of change within our communities. What I’ve learned and am learning is that God uses people who have perceived weaknesses to bring strength and recovery to others who are in fact hiding their own needs. This is perfectly illustrated in the story in the gospel of John chapter 9. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and he sees a man blind from birth. His disciples as whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned. This sort of thinking is common among people trying to make sense of a disability. Someone must have sinned, so who was it? And Jesus answers, “”Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

I think it is interesting that neither this man nor his parents sought Jesus out for a healing. Jesus chose to heal him to reveal God’s works in him. The man had to do his part. He obeyed Jesus’ word to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (9:7) He returned able to see and he himself becomes a visible sign of God’s works. Just like those persons today entering recovery, he found opposition from those unable to accept his changed condition. The assumption was that people who are disabled all their lives should not just suddenly reenter society!

The man’s parents had to refuse to get involved because of their fear of the religious authorities. And this man is cast out of the synagogue because of his story. He tells the truth and has to pay dearly for it in the very place where he should be loved and welcomed. (9:34) This man’s healing serves to expose the religious community that was much more content with blindness, lies, and isolation than with truth and evidence of the miraculous. Jesus said,

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.” (9:39-41 NRSV)

The authors of “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recover” (familiesinsociety.org) wrote that people with mental illness and or disability need to experience themselves as “empowered agents of change rather than passive recipients of mental health services.” Every person is different, and no one person’s recovery will look the same. There are some common things involved: hope, coping skills, empowerment, and supportive social networks. I believe that rather than full of fear, denial, and opposition our churches can be facilitators for recovery. Many churches are already doing this. Let’s learn from them and spread the good word!

When we choose to support those in recovery, we have the opportunity to understand change and time differently. One principle in solution-focused therapy is that “change is inevitable and continuous.” As hard as life gets, it never stays the same continually. We learn to identify improvements and successes where we hadn’t seen them previously. Change is God’s opportunity, not necessarily the loss we tend to perceive it to be. Change does not take God by surprise. In thinking of miracles it is easy to see them as a supernatural change that fixes everything and makes everything better forever. In the New Testament, Jesus miracles simply served to set people free and draw attention to the One whom God sent, the living bread of heaven. As with the blind man in John 9, miracles would often set people’s expectations on their head, as when Jesus would heal on the Sabbath or not simply heal but offer forgiveness of sins.

There is no greater miracle than the realization that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world, has conquered death. All suffering sets before us the reality of our demise. Our bodies cry out “I am not invincible. I am not impervious to pain.” And when in pain it is easy to feel alone and forgotten. When we look at John chapter 11, we find the family of Jesus’ close friends inBethanysuffering. Lazarus was sick and dying, and they send word to Jesus, who incidentally was in Galilee after being rejected inJudeain previous chapters. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus stayed inGalileeuntil his friend had died. He gives the word to his disciples that his beloved friend’s sickness “is for God’s glory that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The disciples know that they are heading right back to where he would be killed. And Jesus speaks to this fear:

“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”” (John 11:9-15, NRSV)

Jesus was well aware of his friend Lazarus’ condition, and he knew his own mortality. He did not fear death for himself or his disciples. He was simply waiting on God’s time. This, my friends, is real courage and confidence. His eyes were on what God would accomplish. This challenges our understanding of time, the nature of miracles, and healing itself. The Lord of time challenges us to be patient and to begin to see all changes differently. Jesus Christ, victor over death and hell, invites us to love with a view toward what God will accomplish. Even as I write this I am in emotional pain because a good friend of my family’s is very angry and hurt. We cannot seem to come to agreement and in the near future we see only separation. But I have to speak the truth about this situation aloud to myself, “I look forward to the day when we will again speak kindly to each other, when we will remember the good times we’ve had and marvel at all the good God has done in our lives. I choose to look past the present anger to the good change I know is coming.”

“We are as sick as our secrets.” The only way to become agents of Christ’s transforming power is to give up hiding our true selves. Many people are afraid of mental illness because it reveals their own frailty. In order to be given sight we must admit we are blind. In order to know that Jesus was not crazy, we have to accept that God was secure enough in Himself that he emptied himself and suffered humiliation, torture and death for our sake. Jesus’ claims to be God were connected to his intent to bear witness, suffer and die. (Jn. 10:17-18, 20) If we claim to be His people, we must know that our connection to Christ involves revealing our true selves. We are weak, vulnerable, and in many kinds of pain. To admit this is to admit that we have something to share with the mentally ill among us.

It is my privilege to acknowledge my brothers and sisters in Christ in the audience and watching or listening at home who are not defined by their mental illness or disability. You each have a unique calling and ability to bear witness to Christ. I am blessed by the image of God in you. Some of you do not know what a blessing you are and I’m here to say simply, “Thank you.”

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

A Brief list of resources consulted

 

1. Marcia Webb, Toward a Theology of Mental Illness,

http://www.spu.edu/depts/csfd/documents/Weter2009TowardaTheologyofMentalIllnessMarciaWebb_000.pdf

2. “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recovery With Consumers Who Have a Severe Mental Disability” by Gilbert J. Greene, David C. Kondrat, Mo Yee Lee, Jeanne Clement, Hope Siebert, Richard A. Menzer, & Shelly R. Pinnell, from the Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, www.familiesinsociety.org.

3. Mental Illness Ministries, Chicago Archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities
Website has useful documents as resources and support.

I used “Mental Illness and Parish Outreach” in my sermon,

http://www.miministry.org/booklet.pdf

http://www.miministry.org/support.htm

4. Pathways to Promise, an interfaith cooperative located inSt. Louis, offering many good resources. http://www.pathways2promise.org

5. National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org,

6. National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, http://www.nhchc.org/

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Sojourners not Vagabonds

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Title: We are Sojourners Not Vagabonds

Dear Friends,

“Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11, English Revised Version) This is not our home. We live in a world where people are constantly on the go. They feel that time is their enemy. They hustle to make money and then can’t remember where they spent it or when. But we are homemaking sojourners. Life is difficult and too short. Everything is constantly changing and it’s very hard to adapt. We wonder if we have what it takes just to survive, let alone live life to its full.

I meet new people all the time who have stories about where they’ve come from, what happened, and how they plan to survive. But most of the stories lack any orientation. Orientation is a function of the mind involving time, place, and personhood. This world’s sense of orientation is based on personal wealth, ego, and isolation. Because their orientation is in Christ, Sojourners make different kinds of homes.

Brian Walsh and Stephen Bouma-Prediger describe the mind of our age in terms of a vagabond: “The vagabond is a pilgrim without a destination; a nomad without an itinerary. The vagabond journeys through an unstructured space; like a wanderer in the desert, who knows only of such trails as are marked with his own footprints, and blown off again by the wind the moment he passes, the vagabond structures the site he happens to occupy at the moment, only to dismantle the structure again as he leaves. Each successive spacing is local and temporary—episodic.” (Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, pg. 252) A vagabond has lost their orientation. There is no particular destination, and no need to arrive on time.

When the Apostle Peter said “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” we can be sure he wasn’t just talking about sexual lust. All lusts begin with desire, and our desires are interwoven with our imaginations. The things we long for in our waking dreams. Imagination is a powerful thing. It can be filled with fear and hate or with love and empathy. Walter Brueggeman said, “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 315-316) When we stop praying for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done we start working to build our own kingdoms and do our own thing.

Sojourners are People of the Book. Our orientation, our worldview, the operating manual, however you want to say it, comes from what God says we are in the Bible. And here’s the thing about God’s Word, it’s not just a bunch of facts or information that we memorize. Being God’s people means attending to the things Jesus taught us. What we think about, what we say, how we love, and who we belong to all matter in the long run. How long is this gonna take? The duration of our lives.

As People of the Book we develop memories that sin had robbed from us in the past. It does not matter how many good things happened to us in life when we were vagabonds, because we lacked orientation. If we found fifty bucks on the street it would be gone by sundown, spent on the riverboat or on lotto tickets. But as sojourners we remember everyday where God has brought us from, and where He has promised we are going.

Sojourners don’t travel alone. In one sense we all stand alone before God. We can’t repent of anyone else’s sins, and we can’t carry the weight of another’s soul. But God has us traveling and living in the real fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As vagabonds, there was some occasional fellowship as it helped us get what we wanted. Free love, free food, free room and board occasionally and free opinions, but in the end we really didn’t mean to be committed to each other. Love was always too strong of a word. Love involves trust and vulnerability, and vulnerability brought up pain. But as a sojourner, we live out a type of commitment that is truly impossible without the Spirit of God. We learn the price of mutual regard and become willing to pay it (like the sign says out in the lobby). It costs a lot to live like this. It cost Jesus Christ his life. And when Jesus said to follow by denying ourselves and taking up the cross, we can be sure that knowing Him involves commitment.

The third mark of a sojourner is in hospitality. As a vagabond attempting to survive, we were taught that protecting our possessions and hiding them away was the only way to keep them. We learned as consumers that enough was never enough. New toys grow old by the next year, and real security was in grabbing as much material and space as possible as a way of gaining leverage for future purchasing. We picked our guests very carefully and spread our influence and reputation wisely. Sojourners think of their possessions very differently. They begin with a confidence that God has provided just what was needed in the past, is providing what they have now, and will provide as needed in the future. For this reason, what they have has been freely given and so they freely give it away. They work hard and instead of marking time in terms of money, they are grateful for each day they have to be able to serve.

Hebrews 13:2-3 says: “Do not forget or neglect or refuse to extend hospitality to strangers [in the brotherhood–being friendly, cordial, and gracious, sharing the comforts of your home and doing your part generously], for through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner, and those who are ill-treated, since you also are liable to bodily sufferings.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly thought to myself “there certainly aren’t any angels around here.” But such an attitude lacks all imagination. The text is not telling us to be on the look out for people with hidden wings or halos under their hat, but to never overlook the stranger in need. We should be reminded of Lot in the book of Genesis. The Lord’s messenger came to him when he lived in the wicked city of Sodom and brought him the warning that would save his family. I find that when my heart is not cold, the Lord regularly uses complete strangers to bless me with kindness and gratitude.

More important than angels, we can’t forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-36 that he comes to us as the least of these hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. Hebrews 13:3 calls us to true empathy. We don’t just feel bad for prisoners, we remember them as fellow prisoners. When we encounter injustice, and there is plenty to go around, we remember that we ourselves suffer easily. Sojourners care about justice: housing for the homeless and low income, fair wages that come not just at the employer’s convenience, and care for Creation instead of exploitation.

Wendell Berry reminds us that, “The health of nature is the primary ground of hope—if we can find the humility and wisdom to accept nature as our teacher.” (Beyond Homelessness, pg. 319) With new eyes to see we can look around at the good earth God has created and realize that for all we may have done to harm her, she is still here to sustain and teach us.

God calls us by name in His Son Jesus Christ, and with this call to be His people we know who we are. The God who created this world has not abandoned us. He calls us to be a People of Imagination who do not succumb to this world’s disorientation; to the life of a short minded vagabond. We are meant for love and community, not simply survival.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Violence makes me sick

I heard yesterday that the most commonly reported form of violence in my neighborhood is battery. I don’t think about it much, but I must confess that I am prone to rage fantasies when pushed into a situation that I find untenable. When I can’t see a way forward part of me reverts to wanting to hurt someone. That is quite scary to me, especially when I consider all the times I’ve witnessed the aftermath of serious violence. Homelessness, hospitalization, surgery, recovery. When it touches someone you know it makes you sick. To be near an assault, or to be threatened with assault is to feel your very world as you know it threatened with extinction. Some of the blogs I’ve recently read regarding pacifism remind us that Christians are called to suffer. I wonder whether or not this suffering of violence in the abstract is not in itself a retreat. I agree with them, and I certainly don’t wish suffering on anyone, but just today I got word that someone I know was near fatally beaten and hospitalized by a mentally ill person who they were trying to help. This news saps me of all energy and makes me feel downright sick. I can’t help but think that anyone I know could be next. When you reach out to wounded, desperate people, there is really no protection from violence in this world. I spoke similar words to my friend whose wife works with a family with a history of violence. He has to block the possibilities out of his mind. For my part, I am chastened that I must deal more quickly with my own inner violence. Resentment and inner rage is the seedbed for violent action. I often think of those words from Alcoholics Anonymous “taking the actions of love to improve our relations with others.” 

Violence is always what is possible, but how much more is love? Fear and hatred are very real things, but so are gratitude and generosity. I think back on life in the believing fellowships where I grew up and now serve. Thousands have been sheltered, comforted, and enriched by this family of God. There were terribly fearful situations at times, but all in all, the life of sharing all things in common was often simply boring. You get used to living a certain way, you know? You get used to strange and wonderful people sharing your food and home. When someone acted out in a profoundly disturbing way it hurt us, like the time I saw my mother’s face slapped hard in our front yard by a woman mom had to ask to leave. I stood there powerless to do anything. But by being close to the poor for a short time you realize that you only have a taste of their daily fears. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus knows this pain and fear and calls me to know it too. To be the Church is to drink the cup of pain Jesus drinks. We are not immune.

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