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We Need to Talk About Friday

Here is my sermon from Sunday. It is offered in the hope that it will bring hope and comfort in a place of despair and grief.

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-11.

I was going to say something very different until Friday came. I was going to talk about what is coming, about a vision God has for us, about something we cannot see. Now it seems so empty, unreal, theoretical.

We need to talk today about what happened on Friday. We need to tell each other what we think and feel after seeing images and hearing stories like the ones we saw and heard from Newtown, Connecticut. We cannot stuff our tears down into our souls and hope they will go away – they cannot. We cannot hide behind some policy argument and pray that our spirits will be healed in the meantime. Nor can we put away our memories of this shooting in the same place as the one we put our memories of Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; and the others still more weeks and months in the past. Here in this space we must have the courage and the compassion to shed our tears, to share our anger and our grief, to wonder about our world and God’s movement in it. Because if we cannot grieve here in the presence of God and the community of disciples of the Crucified One, where can we possibly hope to grieve?

On Friday we saw parents running to their child’s school and then to the local fire station, terrorized by the thought that their child would not be there but still in their classroom. On Friday we saw a school building turned into a morgue, a place of death and destruction. As the governor of Connecticut noted, “Today evil has visited the people of Newtown.”

We gather today knowing full well that evil is real. We have seen it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears and we can no longer run away from it. Evil torments us, terrorizes us, oppresses us. We turn our lives upside down in an effort to protect ourselves and our children from evil only for it to slither its way through a crack in our defenses anyway. So we throw up our hands and wonder if anything can be done to prevent evil from visiting our lives too. We despair, we cry, we rail against the injustice of it all, and we lift all of it up to God and beg Him to do something with it.

We are not the first to have the visitation of evil, nor will we be the last. The Israelites of old had their land, their temple, their freedom and their families all ripped away from them. Some stayed to work for empire after empire who took their crops for their food and their children for their armies. Others were deported and forced to serve their new masters. There were certainly the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. There were plenty of ashes and tears.

And into this place where evil has visited steps the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah peers into the future (whether near or far we cannot say) and sees something more than the pain being endured in the present. He sees cities and communities being rebuilt. He sees garland instead of ashes, comfort where there is mourning. He sees justice against those who brought evil to his people. He proclaims a year of the Lord’s favor.

To be honest, today all these things seem very far away. They seem empty, unreal, theoretical.

They also seem revolutionary.

We live in the heart of the American Revolution. The great orator and governor of colonial Virginia Patrick Henry lived only a few miles from here. He also led and participated in the American Revolution against Great Britain. He saw the evils of oppression bearing down on the people of the colonies and he did not shy away from them. He noted, “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and provide for it.”

But Patrick Henry did not stop at knowing the worst – he looked forward to something better. He had no qualms about acknowledging the reality around him and the reality of human beings, that we thirst for power over one another and seek to enslave one another given the chance. Patrick Henry also saw that it didn’t have to be this way, that there could be something more. He knew that it would be a struggle; he knew he would have to fight for it, even die for it. But he pressed on anyway to that vision of liberty for all. Thus began the revolution.

Today, this Sunday after Friday, we hear the call in Isaiah of another revolution. It is a revolution against evil in our world. It is a fight to honor every living human being, to break the chains of oppression and to comfort those who grieve with hope. It is the acknowledgement of reality and looking forward to something better, something purer, something God-infused.

Now the revolution among the American colonies was fought muskets and cannons as well as with words and documents. The revolution of God is fought not with guns but with relationships, not with declarations of independence but recognition of dependence. The kingdom of God outlined in Isaiah begins not with a battle at Lexington and Concord but with the surrender at Golgotha. The Advent hope we cling to on Sunday is directly linked to a different Friday, one that we can only the see the goodness of given that Sunday always follows Friday.

In the bleakness of winter the ground turns from green to brown and the winds grow cold. It seems that death has laid its claim all around us. It seems that it will always be Friday, that the power of evil has won, and that our grief will never be consoled. But remember the words of Isaiah: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Today it is hard to hear those calls of righteousness and praise through the sounds of mourning. But it is coming, and we know it because the cross stands empty to the sky and the tomb contains only a few pieces of linen.

And so we stand together, we cry together, we huddle together, we get angry together, we fight together, we proclaim revolution together, and we say what we believe together. We know that evil is real and we do not turn away from it. Instead we fight it with good, with love, with Christ. And still we believe despite the pain and suffering that comes and finds our doors. We know how this revolution ends.

This is our Father’s world. Not evil’s, not sin’s, not death’s.

This is our Father’s world.
O let us ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.

And someday soon we will offer the second part, singing it with all the brokenhearted around us.

This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

Until that day comes, until the revolution of the Christ-child is complete, we believe, we hope, we look to the stable and to the cross. We remember. And we also say together with voices cracking or shouting or somewhere in between, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Witness to the Resurrection – Remembering Ruth Springer

A long time member of Laurel Presbyterian Church, Ruth Springer died last Monday at the age of 101. We will take time during our regular worship on Sunday, July 15, starting at 10 am to remember her and give witness to the resurrecting power of our Lord.

In preparation for that we are looking for anyone willing to do so to share their stories about Ruth and what they will remember about her. There are two opportunities for you do share. First, we will be meeting together in the church Fellowship Hall on Saturday, July 7, starting at 11 am for a time to talk, remember, and give thanks for Ruth. If you are not able to make that time, the second opportunity is to share you story with Pastor Andy via e-mail at laurelpres@verizon.net,

Even if you didn’t know Ruth, join us as we celebrate her life and look forward to the resurrection to come.

At the Intersection of Belfast and Saint Louis Park, Part 2

You can find Part 1 here.

As is the case with all posts on this blog, the following is the opinion of Rev. Andrew Meyers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members of Laurel Presbyterian Church, its session, or the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. – Ephesians 2:13-14

In Northern Ireland’s captial Belfast there are walls which still separate Catholic neighborhoods and Protestant ones, walls with gates closed every evening and opened every morning that can be closed should violence erupt again. These walls are called, “Peace Walls,” apparently for the notion that they keep the peace should war break out. Someday I hope the Peace Walls will come down. This will be the mark that the country torn apart by war and sectarianism has truly healed.

In the midst of the changes going on in the PC(USA) some ministers and elders now known as the Fellowship have called for the establishing of “new Reformed body” within the denomination but separate. They call for new presbyteries based more on theology than geography, for a renewed focus on new church developments and congregational mission, and developing leaders for the church in this new time. This would give more of a sense of unity in the midst of calls for schism. We would still be under one denominational flag, we would still have pensions and property, we would still even have collegial relationships with friends. As a friend of mine noted, it would be like having Catholic orders – separate theological emphases all in one church. I believe the Fellowship is honestly attempting to find a way forward given the warring factions which have engulfed the PC(USA) over the past three decades, and I give them credit for that

From my perspective the Fellowship is proposing to build a set of peace walls within the PC(USA). The walls are designed to safeguard the theological purity of each side while allowing nominal unity of the body. They would act as the Belfast walls act, with gates that keep marauders from one side from invading the other should our verbal and theological debates flash again. The pro-gay ordination justice crowd would be happy (at least in their part of the denomination) and the anti-gay ordination Biblical crowd would get what they want (at least in their part of the denomination). Everybody wins, or at least everyone can co-exist. Again, the Fellowship is trying to find a new way forward that most can live with and I think this at least deserves consideration.

But. Yes, there’s a “but.” Peace walls indeed contributed to stopping the violence in Belfast’s most explosive neighborhoods. As the BBC noted in 2009, however, “For people living in the shadow of a concrete wall topped with fencing the peace they bring can help cement divisions rather than heal communities.” And fifteen years after paramilitaries stopped their campaigns, the council of the city of Derry is proposing to build a new peace wall in response to rising sectarianism.

Peace walls should not be confused with reconciliation. And the church is called to reconciliation as well as preserving truth and doing justice through the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Confession of 1967 (at this time maybe the least popular of all our confessions) states:

To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares his labor of healing the enmities which separate men [and women] from God and from each other.

The walls built around presbyteries in the coming years should this proposal gain purchase will not come down easily. I get the feeling that for folks with vested interests on both sides of this debate that they don’t want the walls to come down easily. They’ve worked too hard and invested so much that to give up now would seem like capitulation to the enemy.

Yet just as much as we seek to speak the truth and as much as we seek to do justice, we are also called to do reconciliation. So if we are to erect walls between ourselves through the forming of non-geographic presbyteries, I would pray that they would be temporary and permeable.

Temporary non-geographic presbyteries would allow for us all to put down our weapons of verbal warfare and move together in areas of common concern such as mission, evangelism, and social witness. By moving away from constant debates about sexuality we might find see the grace of Christ at work in the whole denomination once again. Separation though should not permanently relieve us of the call live out the reconciling power of Christ. Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles as Paul mentions in Ephesians 2, and as such we are made “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19). We are called to break down the walls of hostility we have built up over these past decades – not make them permanent.

Permeability in science is defined as the capability of something to permit the flow of something else through its spaces. Permeable presbyteries would indeed have boundaries for membership and theology. Permeable presbyteries would also regularly interact with others with whom they disagree not in a spirit of debate over a particular motion but in relationship and discussion about the issues that affect us all. In a covenant relationship defined this way, we will not cut ourselves off from one another but hopefully provide a safer space with which to have hard conversations, and even harder transformations.

If we cannot agree that these new governing bodies (or councils should the new Form of Government pass) are both temporary and permeable, then I will not support their creation. I cannot in good conscience build walls of separation and hostility in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without the concurrent confession that their existence is due to our sin and failure and that repentance will require their eventual destruction.

No matter where we may go in these coming days, let us seek to follow the Shepherd and Bishop of Souls in the work of proclaiming his Gospel so that we may be able to do that which Paul asks of the Ephesians: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. …Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:25, 32).

At The Intersection of Belfast and Saint Louis Park, Part 1

As is the case with all posts on this blog, the following is the opinion of Rev. Andrew Meyers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members of Laurel Presbyterian Church, its session, or the Presbyterian Church (USA).

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:1-6

On May 10 at Peace Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area voted in favor of Amendment 10-A of the Book of Order. As of Tuesday, a majority of presbyteries across the country have voted to ratify this amendment to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Amendment 10-A replaces the current language of the Book of Order used to bar active gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from being ordained as deacons, elders, or Ministers of Word and Sacrament. As of July 2011, the language found in G-6.0106(b) will state:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

While there is much discussion of what this wording actually implies, one thing is clear: a presbytery can no longer categorically deny ordination to actively gay persons. For some this is a momentous victory – for them justice has finally begun for our brothers and sisters in Christ who hear the call of God to ordained ministry and yet also are gay. For others this is a crushing defeat – for them the church has capitulated to cultural norms instead of standing firm in the Gospel of Jesus Christ who calls all to new life in him. For Presbyterians on both sides, the past three decades have been a civil war in which for them the very Gospel was at stake.

While a student in January of 2002 I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland with a group of my seminary colleagues. We went to witness firsthand efforts to bring peace to a region dominated for decades by violence ostensibly between Protestant and Catholic Christians. (The conflict in Northern Ireland is more about identity as Irish or British rather than religion, but religion has played a tremendous role in the conflict.)

I came away from our travels to this beautiful country with two main thoughts. First, war affects everyone including the innocent. Children in Northern Ireland were brought up during “The Troubles” to identify other children as us or them. Protestants and Catholics were highly segregated into neighborhoods which reinforced loyalties and perpetuated myths for us and against them. Even those who never even considered violence against the other lived in a world constantly divided between Protestant and Catholic.

Then there were those who lost loved ones in the war, those whose grief and need for revenge was palpable. And it seemed everyone knew someone who had died in the Troubles. Everyone was affected, and everyone was put on a side whether they wanted to be or not.

Second, I learned that extricating one’s self from a war requires long, hard work. It took the two most radical parties in Northern Ireland being voted into power for the region to have a semi-stable government. I remember watching a speech by Martin McGuiness on the floor of the Northern Irish Parliament at Stormont. McGuiness, leader of the Sinn Fein party, collaborated with the IRA. At that time he was Minister for Education. I can’t help but wondering how a Protestant mother or father felt sending their children to schools run by a former member of the IRA.

While violence in the region is down, tensions still run high even now. There is a constant threat of a flaring up of violence, and the need for peacemaking is still great. Relationships must be built without reference to sect.

The PC(USA) as a denomination has been at war over GLBT folk for over 30 years now, and the war has taken its toll. Candidates who were not able to be ordained because of sexual orientation have left for other denominations such as the United Church of Christ and Metropolitan Community Churches. Congregations incensed that the denomination would even consider ordained gay clergy and elders have left for other denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Presbyterian Church of America. The constant debate has sapped energy, intelligence, imagination, and love from local leaders which could have instead been focused on ministry and evangelism to the poor, to the hungry, to students, to young families, to the middle aged, to the elderly.

Everyone, even the innocent or the apathetic, has been affected. Everyone has chosen a side or has been placed in one. There are those who have lost loved ones in the fight, and they grieve and maybe even want revenge. There are those who have been brought up to determine if their brothers and sisters are either us or them. We have been factionalized as a denomination, and the factions run deep. Even if we call this vote on 10-A an end to the war or just another battle in it, we still live in a denomination divided.

To extricate ourselves from this war will take a long time, require hard work, and depend on an abundance of Christ-given grace. We will need to take seriously our call to be in real relationship with God, with the Scriptures, and with each other. We will need to learn how to stop viewing each other through the lens of “Biblical or inclusive,” “conservative or liberal,” “us or them.” We will need to resist the temptation to rejoice in victory over our brothers and sisters. We will also need to resist the temptation to give up on relationship saying, “Relationship cannot be salvaged,” or, “I cannot be relationship with an apostate.”

We need to come together in the healing arms of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We have proven time and time again through vote after vote that we are not capable of reconciling ourselves to one another. Only God can heal us and make us whole. Only Christ could possibly accomplish the massive transformation of our life together that must take place. Only the Holy Spirit can provide us with the daily opportunities to relearn how to live as the church – the body of Christ in the world.

As a new era begins in the PC(USA) I am left only to say again that which I say every Sunday, the blessing Paul gave to the Corinthians so long ago which we need to hear again and again: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forever. Grace. Love. Communion. We certainly need it.

(For more information, including a letter form the leadership of the PC(USA), visit the PC(USA) website.)

Part 2 of this post can now be found here.

Gathering Our Pitchforks

Holy Week is a journey for all of us. We follow Jesus and the disciples into Jerusalem, to the upper room to celebrate the Passover, to Golgotha and the cross, and finally to the empty tomb.

In the midst of this journey at the end of Lent we are called once again to examine ourselves, to see ourselves for who we truly are. So often this is not a pretty picture. We are good at lying to ourselves, telling ourselves that everything is all right – that we’re just fine thank you very much – when in fact we’re not even close to fine. Sure we celebrate Palm Sunday waving greenery and singing together, “Hosanna in the highest!” But more often than not by the time we arrive home from worship we’ve turned our thought away from Jesus and on to other things, things we believe are more important.

On Palm Sunday I noted that the same people who celebrated Jesus on Sunday had gathered their torches and pitchforks like the village mob to execute him on Friday. Jesus didn’t conform to their idea of a Savior. He didn’t come in with guns blazing or massive armies to rid Jerusalem and Israel of Roman occupation. He didn’t come to set up the theocracy instituted under King David so many years ago. He didn’t come preaching of revenge or guerrilla insurrection, nor even about security.

Instead Jesus talked about lifting up the least and the vulnerable in society. He spoke words of comfort and healing to those who suffered, and spoke of justice to those in power. He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us. He called the meek and poor, “blessed.” He wasn’t what the crowd, or we, think of when we think of a savior.

So by Friday when Pilate wondered aloud whether to pardon Jesus the peacemaker or Barabbas the insurrectionist they called for Barabbas. And so do we. We see the choice between peacemaking and armed security and we choose security. We see the choice between loving our enemies and hating them and we choose hate. We see the choice between caring for the poor and ignoring them and we choose to ignore. We choose Barabbas.

Holy Week reminds us of the times we gather our pitchforks and cry out for Barabbas and hand Jesus over to be crucified. It is also to remind us that by God’s grace the tomb is empty. By God’s grace our choices do not lead to our condemnation. By God’s grace we are welcomed to a new way of living and being, a way with the resurrected Christ – Jesus of Nazareth – at the center.

In Case You Missed It…

Here’s the image of the week from last Sunday’s sermon. (Although if you listen to the sermon here, you may have other candidates.)

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:13-14.

Also, we had an ice cream social in the fellowship hall yesterday and the fellowship was great. The story of the day, however, was the ice cream. Claudia Hicks made five different flavors by hand over the previous week and all of them were fantastic! If you missed this great time then you need to convince her to do it again. Her family wanted to label the event, “1st Annual” Ice Cream Social. Claudia wasn’t so sure about that.