Sermon June 7, 2015

Scripture

18   “The Spirit of God is upon me, because I have been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”

Prayer

Almighty God, we hear your word. Guide us and the nations of the world into the ways of justice and truth, and establish among us all that favor which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the realm of justice and peace promised by you to our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Dr. Lewis E. Logan, Pastor and Founder of RUACH Christian Community Fellowship here in Los Angeles, lists four justice-crying issues for the African American community in Southern California.  As we explore these issues I am going to pose questions to you.  It is my hope that you will engage with me in conversation.

1)  Mass Incarceration

Michele Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow” highlights the racial dimensions of the War on Drugs. She argues that federal drug policy unfairly targets communities of color, keeping millions of young, black men in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.                                                                      She begins her book by disproving claims that racism is dead. Those who believe that full equality has been achieved would do well to notice that extraordinary number of blacks are still barred from voting because in nearly every state, convicted felons cannot vote. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans have served time in prison as a result of drug convictions and have been branded felons for life. Voting is also barred for those currently incarcerated. Alexander exposes our system of mass incarceration as a system comprised of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control criminals both in and out of prison. The greatest instigator of mass incarceration was the War on Drugs and according to Alexander has created a “rebirth of a caste” system in America.                                                                   Alexander points out that nearly 90 percent of drug felons are black, when studies have shown that whites are more likely to engage in drug activity. Policies that punish crack cocaine more harshly than powdered cocaine (blacks being associated more with crack) lift up discriminatory approaches to drug crime. Alexander provides numerous statistics that suggest that poor black men are on the whole, stopped more often by police, arrested more often, imprisoned more often and serve longer sentences for similar crimes than white males.                                                                      Alexander draws parallels between mass incarceration today and past systems of racialized social control like Jim Crow. Both systems legally discriminated against citizens of color and were formed by the racist views of those in power. She ends her book with a simple question: How best should the public respond to a social crisis of this magnitude? I would ask you all this morning:  What would Jesus do with our current war on drugs?  What would he have to say about the spectacle of mass incarceration?  And let me begin by asking how many of you have had some kind of first-hand experience of our criminal justice system?

a)           What is the root of the problem?

b)           How would Jesus bring an end to the War on Drugs and the systems of oppression that has developed around it?

c)           How can a predominantly Africa American congregation challenge and hope to change the public consensus that “being a criminal equals being black”?

d)           How can we make talking about race once again become honest and transparent?

e)           I believe Jesus would say to us and is saying to us:  Ending mass incarceration will require a grassroots movement of people, white and black, criminal and non-criminal, demanding peace and prosperity for all. 1

2)  Immigration

Pitting black issues against immigrant issues is a false dichotomy. Black immigrants, African Americans and other communities of color are closely intertwined. Historically and currently these groups win when working together for social progress, even though there are times when attempts are made by politicians and those with power to divide these groups through politics and trade-offs. When we take into account the realities of anti-immigrant policy, including voter-ID laws and legalized racial profiling, particularly like those found in states like Arizona, it is clear that immigrant rights are a racial-justice issue, tied closely to the social and political priorities of African Americans.                                                           The diversity of our immigrant identities in the black community is often obscured. Some have adopted the identity of “African American” when they arrive as first-generations from Jamaica or Senegal or when they were brought here as children from Haiti or Belize, or when they came from Ghana on a student visa and others do not. They continue to see themselves as Cameroonians or Kenyans and even take umbrage at being referred to as African Americans.                                                                  Advocating for civil rights while choosing not to complicate the definition with what it means to be black, can lead us to the mistaken idea that immigrants and African Americans are mutually exclusive groups. The immigrant-rights movement particularly here in LA has largely focused on Latino/Latina issues, at times obscuring the realities of the many different faces of immigrants in this country and leading many of us to draw the mistaken conclusion that immigration should be a low priority for our black brothers and sisters.

a)   According to recent statistics blacks are leaving LA in record numbers and are moving to places like the Moreno Valley or out of state. Why do you suppose this is happening?

b)   What does it mean to be black in Latin America?  (Learning to speak Spanish.)

c)   True or False? Immigrants threaten African-American jobs? False! (This is not the case. The real employment threats in the black community are union busting, substandard education and systemic racial discrimination.)

d)   True or False? Black immigrants are subject to this same race-based discrimination as other races? True! (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black immigrants in 2011 had the highest unemployment rate of any foreign-born group in the United States. They also earn lower wages compared with similarly trained immigrant or native-born workers.) 3

3) Education

It was my privilege to attend the graduation ceremony at Dorsey High School last Wednesday evening.  Joseph Gordon, one of the kids who grew up at the Mary Magdalene Project beat the odds and graduated on time with his class.  This was indeed a proud moment for his parents and for me.  The ceremony itself was wonderful and the graduates all decked out in their robes and caps looked like a sea of green across the football field.  Now, I don’t ever remember hearing a probation officer praised or thanked at a graduation ceremony before, but I was told that every LAUSD high school has one assigned to it. The officer at Dorsey seemed to have a tremendous impact on students assigned to his/her caseload.                                         I do know that African Americans are more likely to attend high-poverty schools—that is, public schools where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches—and are less likely to graduate from high school and subsequently attend college at rates lower than any other racial group. Next fall students from Dorsey High will be matriculating at USC, Stanford, a host of California State schools and Santa Monica City College to list but a few and Jo-Jo plans to attend the culinary arts program at LA Trade Tech.                                                          A recent report on black education found that the 47 percent national graduation rate for black males is nearly 28 percentage points lower than that for white males. In 10 states, the report said the graduation rate gap exceeds 30 percentage points, led by Wisconsin, with a 51% gap between the graduation rates of white males and black males.                                       In at least three states black males were more likely to graduate from high schools than their white counterparts, according to the report. And each of those states—North Dakota, Vermont and Maine—have relatively small black populations. “This underscores the fact that when black males are given access to schools and resources similar to those given to white males, their performance levels improve,” the report said.                                           The report points out that most schools with black majority enrollments do not have libraries, an adequate supply of textbooks and computers, art and music programs and science labs. It also concludes that when black students attend schools with talented, caring teachers, well-trained support staff, and challenging curricula, black males graduate at rates similar to white males.  It was extremely difficult to find comparable studies on black female students.                                                              Black males in large metropolitan school districts are particularly at risk for dropping out of school, according to the report. Only 19 percent of both black and white males graduated from high schools in Indianapolis, the lowest rate of any large school district in the study. 4

3)   So what is it that makes high schools work?

  1. Have students complete a challenging program of study with an upgraded academic core and a major focus of study.
  2. Increase access to challenging vocational and technical studies, with a major emphasis on using high-level mathematics, science, language arts and problem-solving skills.
  3. Give students access to a system of work-based and school-based learning planned cooperatively by educators and employers.
  4. Set the highest expectations imaginable and then hold them to it. 5

4) Police Brutality/Profiling 

We would all have to be comatose to not be aware of the national debate raging about police use of deadly force, especially against minorities. To understand why and how often these shootings and deaths occur, The Washington Post is compiling a database of every fatal shooting by police in 2015, as well as of every officer killed by gunfire in the line of duty. The Post looked exclusively at shootings, not killings by other means, such as stun guns or deaths in police custody.                                                                     About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred.                                                                               The dead thus far range in age from 16 to 83. Eight were children younger than 18, including Jessie Hernandez, 17, who was shot three times by Denver police officers as she and a carload of friends allegedly tried to run them down.                                                                                         The Post analysis also sheds light on the situations that most commonly gave rise to fatal shootings. About half of the time police were responding to people seeking help with domestic disturbances and other complex social situations: A homeless person behaving erratically; a boyfriend threatening violence; a son trying to kill himself.                              For the vast majority of police and sheriff departments a fatal shooting is a rare event. Only 306 agencies have recorded one shooting so far this year, and most had only one, The Post analysis shows.                                   However 19 state and local law enforcement agencies were involved in at least three fatal shootings. Los Angeles Police Department leads the nation with eight, the latest occurred May 5, when Brendon Glenn, a 29-year-old homeless black man, was shot after an altercation with LAPD officers outside a Venice bar. 6

a)   What does our scripture passage for today – God has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed – have to say to us about our relationship with law enforcement? There is indeed work to be done.  What does our reliance on the police for domestic concerns say to us about being a neighbors keepers?

Last week Leon in his message asked:  If we were arrested for being Christian would there be enough evidence to convict us? I have spent some time this week pondering his question.  The answer is troubling.                                 Then I got to thinking to myself, are we clear about “our vision and mission” here at St. Paul’s?   What do we offer others an opportunity to participate in?  I believe that more than any other principle or tenant of our faith or values justice is what Jesus loved the most and it was his expectation of us that we would live this out in his name.  His anointing would be our anointing, too.  I would love nothing more than to stand up here this morning and tell Jesus that we have followed his commands and lived his model and the world is decidedly a better place in which to live, but I cannot do that.  There is so much more to be done before we can even get close to making that kind of a statement. Are we trying to live into our Mission Statement found this morning on the front page of our bulletin? So church, what will it be?  What will our message of sight and liberation be?  Will people be able to look at this little church on the corner of Coliseum and La Brea in Los Angeles, CA and say to themselves:  Yes!  St. Paul’s!  That’s where justice lives!  May we work to make it so!  Amen.

Prayer

Grant us, O God, a vision of our church, and our community as your love would make it:

- a city where the weak are protected, and none go homeless, hungry or poor;

- a neighborhood where the benefits of civilized life are shared, and everyone  can enjoy them;                                                               – a community where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect;                                                                               – a church where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.

And give us the inspiration and courage to make it so, through Jesus Christ our guide and our light. Amen.

 

 

_______________

1 http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-new-jim-crow/#gsc.tab=0

2 (Black Immigrant Caucus (888) 204-5987 (602) 333-2017 Black Alliance for Immigration Issues (Gerald Livewah) 

3 African Diaspora Dialogues (ADD) and African American-Immigrant Dialogues (AAID): ADD is a joint project with Priority Africa Network, a coalition of 25 Bay Area African immigrant, faith-based, community-based and service providing organizations.   BAJI and PAN collaborate with local organizations in Los Angeles and other cities to create safe spaces for U.S.-born African Americans and African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino immigrants to come together to discuss issues of race, racism, identity, immigration and globalization.  Project participants also dialogue about the misconceptions and stereotypes that U.S.-born African Americans and African immigrants hold about each other.  AAID is a similar program that brings African Americans together with diverse immigrant communities around similar issues.  Both dialogues are geared toward bringing communities to the table to discuss their common interests, common experiences and common public policy agendas.

4 Study: Graduation Rate Gap Exists Between Black, White Males, by Tim Weldon, CSG Policy Analyst. The report (www.blackboysreport.org) was prepared by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which tracked the performance of African-American males in public school systems over a five year period.

5 http://www.sreb.org/page/1078/high_schools_that_work.html

6 https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_1484w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2015/05/31/National-Enterprise/Graphics/police_03v2.jpg?uuid=-kC8CAcwEeWT9PJNSvf5fQ

Sermon: February 8, 2015

Sermon:  Medgar, Malcolm and Martin                                February 8, 2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                             Fifth Sunday in Epiphany

Scripture: Mark 1:29-39 (MSG)

 

29-31 Directly upon leaving the meeting place, they came to Simon and Andrew’s house, accompanied by James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, burning up with fever. They told Jesus. He went to her, took her hand, and raised her up. No sooner had the fever left than she was up fixing dinner for them.

 

32-34 That evening, after the sun was down, they brought sick and evil-afflicted people to Jesus, the whole city lined up at the door! He cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits. Because the demons knew his true identity, Jesus didn’t let them say a word.

 

35-37 While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, “Everybody’s looking for you.”

 

38-39 Jesus said, “Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come.” He went to their meeting places all through Galilee, preaching and throwing out the demons.

 

Prayer

Everlasting God, you give strength to the powerless and power to the faint; you raise up the sick and cast out demons. Make us mindful of your love and grace and make us agents of healing and wholeness that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creations. Amen.

Our Experience:

We have arrived at the third word in our Year of Spiritual Literacy, the second “B” word:  Being Present.  Now, you may recall that our first word was “attention” as in paying attention, so you may be asking, what is the difference between paying attention and being present? There are differences both subtle and profound.

Being present in a spiritual way always has a double meaning. There’s present, as in being here, now, in attendance. And there’s present, as in now, a moment of time. This morning we are talking about being here now.   Many of the world’s religions recommend living in the moment with full awareness. Zen Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on “nowness.” Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, Moslem, Christian, as well as other religions urge us to make the most of every day as an opportunity that will not come to us again.  Also under the rubric of being present is a traditional spiritual exercise called “practicing the presence of God”. This means recognizing that God is here now moving through our everyday activities, no matter how trivial they might seem.1   Certainly Jesus engaged in this practice during his earthly ministry of healing and casting out demons, and he expects no less of us.      Like Simon’s mother-in-law we are expected to get up and serve as soon as the healing has taken place. And as unhealthy as we know becoming like others as Paul stated in his letter to the Corinthians, his ability to identify with particularly the suffering of others was very much a part of his being present.

As impossible as that sounds it is possible to be mindful in even the most trying circumstances.  Antoinette Tuff, a Georgia high school bookkeeper looked up from her desk to find an enraged 20-year-old man with an AK47 burst through her office door.  She was terrified but she stayed calm and followed his instructions to dial 911 and a news station with so much poise and respect that she won his trust.

She began to talk with him as if he were her own son.  “Sweetheart,” she said when he started shooting at police, “come back in here.  It’s going to be you and me.  We will work this out.” Eventually she persuaded him to surrender. This is what the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence calls a meta-moment, noting the “space in time” between when something happens and we react. 2

Our Experience Expanded

I was introduced to the idea of being present while Dayja was in Utah.  Alpine Academy included as part of its curriculum a program of “mindfulness”.  The girls in the program were trained in this whole concept of awareness, of being present to themselves and to the world around them.      It always starts with breathing. Having trouble coping? Simply draw a deep breath and let it out through your nose. When we breathe through our mouths it triggers a subtle anxiety response, which increases heart rate and redirects blood flow. If you can’t do it, hold a drink of water in your mouth. A slow release of breath through the nose has the opposite effect of mouth-breathing, and draws a relaxation response.

What are you doing right now? Are you just sitting? Where are your thoughts? Your emotions? Your hands? Your sense of time? Do you feel anxiety? Not being present is easy. There are bills to pay, and kids to pick up at school. There are doctor’s appointments and reports to write, books to read, laundry piling up, loved ones to miss and the list goes on and on. It is no wonder that presence is so elusive. It is not, however, as elusive as we might believe.

Dayja was taught to be a witness. After becoming aware of what she was doing, exactly what she was doing in any given moment, she was taught to bear witness to it: Observe it, name it and stand away from it all at the same time. Indeed the moment is now, but when we cling to a “now”, rather than simply bearing witness to it and letting it pass by, we become trapped in time as it passes.  Our minds must flow like our breath if we are to remain constantly and consistently present in the moment and not mired in the past or suffering in anticipation of the future.  I sometimes think my mind is like a steel trap – particularly at 3:30 in the morning when I am wide awake and my mind is caught up in something that happened the day before or something I am anxious about and I am seemingly powerless to shut off, until I start to focus on exhaling my breath.  I have to let it go.  Much like bearing witness, whatever is not there (sleep) in that moment I must let go of. I must be there, right there, right then. That’s all.  Letting go. Breathing.

All the mindfulness guru’s talk about traveling light — what we do not need in that moment, we are instructed not to take on board. If only – I like my creature comforts (my friends refer to me as a bag lady) and I travel both in my day to day life (you should see the crap in the back end of my car) and when I take a trip.  It is like I am going to stay for a month even though it is only for a few days. And I do this spiritually as well as physically.

The contrasts to being present are living in the past and living in the future. We do the former when we hold on to regrets. We constantly review things that have already happened, trying to explain them in terms of our own or someone else’s actions. Often this kind of thinking leads to guilt or blaming.  I am going to show you a video at the end of my message this morning.  It is an interview with Rev. Jim Reese.  He has memories, profound memories of being African American and working in the South before the Civil Rights movement really kicked in. You will notice how he carries the memories forward, he doesn’t dwell, he isn’t stuck, they inform his being present.

We live in the future when we make assumptions or fantasize about what could happen and then become attached to those expected outcomes. This habit usually results in disappointment. Whether we are consumed with positive expectations (optimism) or negative projections (pessimism), we are not living in the moment.

I have read so much about great agitators, early church reformers, women suffragists, civil rights proponents, what we can know about Old Testament /Hebrew text prophets and the lives of Jesus and Muhammad, Sojourner Truth, Mary Baker Eddy and Ammie Semple McPherson. And I think that one thing they all have in common was that they each in their own way were present.  They were in the here and now. They were assured in a way that only deep faith sees us through.  They were convinced that what they sought was right and just and important.  They were focused and they were resilient. At their time and place they were in the here and now.  Let’s take a deeper look.

Our Tradition

Medgar Evers was a civil rights leader born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi.  He dropped out of high school at 17 to join the army, where he served in World War II. Returning home, he finished high school and later graduated from Alcorn A & M College. After working at Magnolia Mutual Insurance, one of the few black-owned businesses in the state, Evers became an NAACP field secretary in Jackson. His civil rights work made him many enemies, and on June 11, 1963, Evers was shot and killed by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Medgar’s wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, carried on his work with much the same focus and presence as Medgar had exhibited. 2                                                                                                                                                   

Malcolm X was also born in 1925.  He is often referred to as a militant black leader and, he was also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  I was assigned to read the book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in my first New Testament exegesis class in seminary.  I started reading around 3 PM on a Friday afternoon and I didn’t stop until Monday morning around 10 AM.  I must have dozed off for a couple of hours here and there, but for the most part I was transfixed.  I had no idea (fresh off that Idaho potato farm) that anyone lived like Malcolm Little of Omaha, Neb.

Exposed in prison to Black Muslims he became a Muslim minister upon his release in 1952. He quickly became very prominent, establishing many new temples in the North, Midwest, and here in California.  In 1964, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, he announced his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam and new beliefs that there could be genuine friendship between blacks and whites. In February 1965, he was shot and killed in a public auditorium in New York City. His assassins were vaguely identified as Black Muslims, but this remains a matter of controversy. 3 His wife, Betty Shabazz was a nurse, an educator and a Civil Rights activist in her own right, carrying on his legacy.                                                                                                   

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a clergyman and civil-rights leader born in Atlanta, GA in 1928.  He graduated from Morehouse College (B.A., 1948), Crozer Theological Seminary (B.D., 1951), and Boston University (Ph.D., 1955). The son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King became (1954) minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. There are any number of people here this morning who could tell his story, who met him or knew people who worked closely with him. He led boycotts (1955–56) of segregated city bus lines and he organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which gave him a base to pursue further civil-rights activities, first in the South and later nationwide.

His philosophy of nonviolent resistance led to his arrest on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 60s. He spearheaded the August 1963 March on Washington, which brought together more than 200,000 people which eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. King and the SCLC led a campaign for African-American voter registration centered in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago this year. His interests widened from civil rights to include criticism of the Vietnam War and a deeper concern over poverty. His plans for a Poor People’s March to Washington were interrupted (1968) for a trip to Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking sanitation workers. On April 4, 1968, he was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. James Earl Ray, a career criminal, pleaded guilty to the murder and was convicted, but he soon recanted, claiming he was duped into his plea. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, carried on various aspects of his work until her death in 2006.4

Re-mything Our Tradition

In different ways we are indebted to each of these men and the family members and friends who carried on their legacies following their premature and violent deaths.  Each of these men in their own ways were being present to the world around them and were engaged in a faith that carried them through.  They were resilient, they could change their minds and accept new ideas and make adjustments because it was presented to themparticulaly when tt squared with their experience and their faith.

As promised in closing I’m going to have Joyce play for us a You Tube video.  This is a brief interview with the Rev. Dr. James Foster Reese.  He is absolutely one of my most favorite people in all of Presbyterianism and possibly the world.  He exhibits for us that same sense of being present that is so critical to being human and to engaging in any successful change making.  He is a man who knows how to breathe, he travels light and just listen to how he can bring his past to bear on the future. 5

________________________

1        http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/practices.php?id=3

2        LA Times, Sunday, February 1, 2015, A18

3        Read more: Medgar Evers http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0878426.html#ixzz3QYhV5AZL

4        Read more: Malcolm X http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/people/malcolm-x.html#ixzz3QYfOaSH8

5        See biographies by K. L. Smith and I. G. Zepp, Jr. (1974), S. Oates (1982), M. Frady (2001), and D. L. Lewis (3d ed. 2012); D. J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986); M. E. Dyson, I May Not Get There with You (2000); S. Burns, To the Mountaintop (2004); F. Sunnemark, Ring Out Freedom! (2004); T. Branch, America in the King Years (3 vol., 1988–2006).vvRead more: King, Martin Luther, Jr. http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/people/king-martin-luther-jr.html#ixzz3QYhhjOXA

6        https://www.youtube.com/watch?x-yt-cl=84359240&v=OatQheIw450&x-yt-ts=1421782837

Sermon: January 25, 2015

Sermon:  Changing God’s Mind                                                January 25, 2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church

Scripture:  Jonah 3:1-10 (MSG)

3 1-2 Next, God spoke to Jonah a second time: “Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They’re in a bad way and I can’t ignore it any longer.”

 

3 This time Jonah started off straight for Nineveh, obeying God’s orders to the letter.

 

Nineveh was a big city, very big—it took three days to walk across it.

 

4 Jonah entered the city, went one day’s walk and preached, “In forty days Nineveh will be smashed.”

 

5 The people of Nineveh listened, and trusted God. They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it—rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.

 

6-9 When the message reached the king of Nineveh, he got up off his throne, threw down his royal robes, dressed in burlap, and sat down in the dirt. Then he issued a public proclamation throughout Nineveh, authorized by him and his leaders: “Not one drop of water, not one bite of food for man, woman, or animal, including your herds and flocks! Dress them all, both people and animals, in burlap, and send up a cry for help to God. Everyone must turn around, turn back from an evil life and the violent ways that stain their hands. Who knows? Maybe God will turn around and God’s mind will change about us, God will quit being angry with us and let us live!”

 

10 God saw what they had done, that they had turned away from their evil lives and God’s mind was changed about them. What God said would happen to them didn’t happen.

 

Prayer

Holy God, creator of a new reality just now coming into view, we have come today to see and touch and know your presence here among us. Be with us as we listen for your call. Help us hear afresh the good news: that power and steadfast love arise from you, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

Our Experience

I have never done anything like this before.  I have outlined my sermon topics for the next 30-some-odd weeks, right up to the Sunday before Christmas.  You were given this booklet with an alphabet on the cover this morning along with your bulletin.  This will tell you what to expect each week:  a year of spiritual literacy based on the alphabet.  I first found this resource in a book by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat back in the late 1990’s.  It was a great resource that I truly enjoyed using as a devotional guide.  At the time I was not preaching on a regular basis, but I remembered thinking that if I were, this would be a great format.

Spiritual literacy is about a whole lot of things.  It can be about what we eat, how well we sleep, the prayers we engage in and receive, the exercise we get, the movies we see, books we read and the holy texts we engage with.  There is the practice of all those words listed alphabetically in the brochure and there is even more! This year of spiritual literacy will give us all an education in spirituality; it will build a firm foundation upon which to ground our faith.

I know that our session has talked about what spirituality is and tried to define it?  Does anyone want to offer a definition?  Do you know where the word comes from? “Spirituality” is derived from Hebrew ruach, which has a range of meanings: spirit, breath, wind, all which gives life and animation to something.  Spirituality then is that which animates a person’s life of faith, that which moves a person’s faith to greater depths and perfection. To further flesh out a definition of Christian Spirituality, we may consider the elements that make up Christianity:

1. A set of beliefs, found in the Creeds and doctrines of the Church

2. A set of values, based on:

Hope and promise of redemption

Love of others

Denial of self

3. A way of life; the real, human life in which our beliefs and values are embodied and expressed. Christianity Spirituality is part of our way of life as Christians.  And I would guess some of you are sitting there thinking to yourselves, “A whole year of this?”  Trust me!  There is enough information and enough variety to keep us going for 10 years!

Our Experience Expanded

So Dayja asks me, “What is the sermon topic this week?” and I respond very sincerely with “Paying Attention!”  Her eyes light up and she looks at me and then she says, “You are preaching on paying attention? You can’t do that!  You distract yourself in the middle of sentences!” It is true, I do.  I will be talking and another thought will pass through my brain and I will stop mid-sentence and go off in some other direction, totally forgetting what I was saying.  She is right! And some of you will have an affinity for some of these ideas presented throughout this year of study and some of you won’t and some of you will like one and some of you will like another.

But, yes, in spite of my limitations we begin today with the letter “A” and the word “Attention” as in “Paying Attention”. We can begin with the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he said, “Watch here and wait with me.” Jesus tells his disciples to pay attention, how simple can it be – just watch and wait, and as we know they couldn’t do it!  God is in the details. Paying attention requires discipline and practice.

I love watching NCIS.  Mark Harmon is so fine!  Among other things those NCIS agents are good role models for those of us who want to become more attentive.  Time and time again they create a big picture and solve the murder from a series of small observations, from almost inconsequential seeming details.  The NCIS agents follow up on every one of those facets when trying to solve the puzzle. And it works!

Are there times during the week when you know you have gotten so busy that you have to wonder what grace, epiphanies and really great insights are lost to you because you are in too much of a hurry or too busy to notice them?  And, of course, we know that if we don’t slow down we will miss the good stuff.

Spiritual directors encourage a couple of practices to aid us in our paying attention:  One is to carry a small notebook for logging things like what we noticed today that we’d missed up until today. Or secondly, we are encouraged to ask ourselves each morning, what will my attention bring me today?  By days end, we are assured we will have an answer.  I prefer the second discipline, primarily because it is so hard to keep track of the notebook!

Our Traditions

Nineveh was the greatest city of its time. It was the ability of the Ninevites in our story from Jonah today to pay attention to God’s demands and that ability to focus saved them from certain doom.  When Jonah spoke they paid attention, they listened, they looked, they fasted, they watched and when they needed to they acted.  The king shed his robes and donned sackcloth and sat in the dirt. The erring Ninevites showed God that their intentions were good, that they were tired of God being so angry with them.  And it worked!  God’s mind was changed about those Ninevites.

Can we imagine what it would be like to be so in tune with God here at St. Paul’s, to be so in step with God’s plan for us, to pray so keenly that hearts and minds would be moved and lives changed, to be so kind and so loving to each other and to the Baldwin Hills community that God would look upon us differently? “We share the terrible love of hatred that kept a grumpy and fearful Jonah from rejoicing in the miracle of repentance and restoration wherever it happened. And yet, the joyful good news is that whoever or wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.” 1

Re-mything Our Traditions

Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer who said ‘Let’s Roll!’ and helped take down the plane over Pennsylvania that was heading for Washington, DC back on 9/11 spoke on Good Morning America in 2011. She told her interviewers that it’s the little things that she still misses most about Todd, such as hearing the garage door open as he came home, and watching her children running to meet him.

And then Lisa told this story:  “I had a very special teacher in high school many years ago whose husband died suddenly of a heart attack.  About a week after his death, she shared some of her insights with her class.  With a gentle look of reflection on her face, she paused and said, ‘Class is over, but I would like to share with all of you a thought that is unrelated to class, but which I feel is very important.  Each of us is put here on earth to learn, share, love, appreciate and give of ourselves.  None of us knows when this fantastic experience will end.  It can be taken away at any moment.”

“Perhaps this is God’s way of telling us that we must make the most out of every single day.  Her eyes, beginning to tear, she went on.  So I would like you all to make me a promise.  From now on, on your way to school, or on your way home, find something beautiful to notice.  It doesn’t have to be something you see, it could be a scent, perhaps the smell of freshly baked bread wafting out of someone’s house, or it could be the sound of the breeze slightly rustling the leaves in the trees, or the way a father walks his daughter to school. Please look for these things, and cherish them.  For, although it may sound trite to some, these things are the ‘stuff’ of life.  The little things we are put here on earth to enjoy.  The things we often take for granted.”

Lisa then concluded, “The class was completely quiet.  We all picked up our books and filed out of the room silently.  That afternoon, I noticed more things on my way home from school than I had that whole semester.  Every once in a while, I think of that teacher and remember what an impression she made on all of us, and I try to appreciate all of those things that sometimes we all overlook. 2

So what helps us focus?  Let’s start with (1) writing it down.  Ok, so we are back to keeping track of the note book again.  I discovered last week that my cell phone has an app called “Story Maker” that allows me to create stories using the written word, pictures, videos and music. I just have to figure out how to use it!  I seem to be able to keep track of my phone, so it is worth a try! (2)  Map it out.  This involves making lists or actually planning your day, including the errands you need to run.  Apparently our minds are only capable of keeping track of two complicated tasks at once, so when ideas or concepts get piled on we forget the original ones first. (3) Now we are talking environment and not just any environment but a conducive one, so if your workmates or your family are too noisy then stick some earplugs in your ears; if clutter bothers you and you are surrounded by it, take a moment to clean it up or find a less cluttered place. (4)  Plan some joy/enjoyment.  This is really hard for some Christians to do, because somewhere, someone decided that Christians had to humorless, sober, hard working and always determined and it is a reputation that is totally not deserved and couldn’t be further from the truth.  And if we have to plan some fun to have it then so be it! (5) Be intentional.  Live with purpose and tenacity.  If we don’t know where we are going, we will probably end up where we don’t want to be.  This is so true, but we also have to pay attention to where God, through the Holy Spirit, is leading us.

So we can start today! Take notice of something today that you don’t normally pay any attention to.  Go barefoot.  Or walk on the beach at sunset.  Stop off on the way home this afternoon to get a double dip ice cream cone.  As we get older, it is not the things we did that we often regret, but the things we didn’t do.” What is it the axiom says: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

As we venture forth during this year of Spiritual Literacy, we will also be looking back at the history of this congregation and forward to its future.  It is my hope that even though our brains can’t juggle more than two things at any one time, the practices we engaging in to enhance our spirituality will also speak to the these aspects of our faith life and others as well.  May it be so!  Amen.

Prayer

God of new realities close at hand, open our ears, our eyes, our hearts and our minds to receive your call. Give us the insight to know that it is you who calls us. Help us to be continually aware of your presence in every aspect of our lives. Grant us the courage to go where you send us as we journey with the risen Christ. Amen.

 

 

1     Alan Brehm, The Waking Dreamer.

2     http://www.sparkpeople.com/mypage_public_journal_individual.asp?blog_id=4278741

Sermon: January 11, 2015

Sermon:  Inside Out                                                                       January 11, 2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                            Baptism of Jesus Sunday

Scripture

Mark 1:4-11 (MSG)

 

4-6 John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey.

 

7-8 As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”

 

9-11 At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

 

Prayer            (BCW 476)

Holy Spirit, who hovered over the waters at creation’s birth, who descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism, who was poured out under the signs of fire and wind at Pentecost: Come to us, open our hearts and minds, so that we may hear the Word of life and be renewed by your power, for you live and reign with the [Creator] and the [Christ], now and forever. Amen.

 

Our Experience

Baptismal services are very important to the Church of Jesus Christ and baptismal services are also very important to me personally. They are awesome moments and there are some baptisms that I remember with much clarity and keenness.

I remember my first baptism immediately after my ordination into the ministry. As you recall I had been called to the First Presbyterian Church of El Centro, CA.  Along with all the other clergy in El Centro I took turns serving on an as-needed-on–call basis at the local hospital.  I remember getting a call from a nurse in the maternity ward around 8 PM.  They had a new born infant weighing less than 3 pounds and the parents were requesting that she be baptized. When I got to the hospital I found out that the Catholic priest had been called first, but refused to baptize the baby because she had been born to an unwed mother.  I talked with the mother and then baptized the smallest human being I had ever seen cradled in a nursery bassinet the size of a shoe box.  I couldn’t even hold her she was so small.

My next baptism was back in my home town in Idaho at my home church and involved the first born child of a friend and high school class mate who was living in Germany.  She had returned to Caldwell with her husband and child to visit her parents.  This was a family affair at the church we had grown up in surrounded by family and friends; a welcoming of a small child into the warm embrace of the family of God. These two baptisms were truly a study in contrasts.

Our Experience Expanded

What are the similarities between our baptisms today and that of Jesus by John the Baptizer 2000 years ago?  1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us.

Our Tradition

Is there a reference to baptism in the Old Testament?  No, there is not a clear Old Testament precedent for baptism with water.  Scholars believe that the New Testament draws on the baptismal practices of the Qumran community and its daily baptismal rites of purification. These spiritual aesthetes washed themselves externally several times a day, but this was viewed as symbolic of an interior cleansing from sin. The Qumran community was situated in the hills overlooking the Dead Sea, south of the town of Jericho, and many scholars think that John the Baptist was placed in the care of this community as a young child or infant and may have grown up in such a community. From this community we have recovered the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts and the stories about the Teacher of Light. 1

The reformer Martin Luther suggested that we should be baptized daily. That is, we are to experience repentance and forgiveness as a daily cleansing of our souls. If we only bathed once a week, we would start to smell. Luther believed that we need to be washed daily to be truly clean in our spiritual walk with Christ. 2

The story of Jesus’ baptism is this. Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insisted. Jesus was immersed into the Jordan River. As he came up out of the river, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. He is my chosen one, in whom my soul delights. Listen to him.”  Immediately, the Spirit of God that had come onto Jesus at his baptism, then led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Re-mything our Traditions

For some people baptism is “just joining the Jesus club.”  For others, baptism is like “hell insurance.” I’ll will never forget when a grandmother insisted that I baptize her granddaughter because the family was going on a trip. For others, infant baptism is so sacred and important that they refuse to baptize people in certain situations, like the priest in El Centro.

Sometimes we say that baptism is like adoption mentioned in the book of Galatians.  Sometimes we refer to baptism like a branding, where the mark of Christ is put on our forehead and then like cattle we know that we belong to God. Babies don’t wash themselves when they are dirty. Parents do. The action and decision for infant baptism is with the parents. Similarly, God washes our hearts and forgives us. We don’t wash ourselves in baptism. God washes us and makes us clean.

In baptism the Spirit lives in our hearts and in the hearts of our community. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit found in creation, the same spirit found in the prophets, the same Spirit found in King David, the same Spirit who filled Jesus is the same Spirit that fills us.

This same Holy Spirit gives you and me the power and gentleness to meet our daily challenges.  To face the challenges within a troubled marriage. To face the challenges with our kids who are driving us insane right now. To face the challenges with our aging parents. To face the challenges of our own aging. To face the challenges placed before us by all the injustices in the world that surround us, with the supremacist powers in this world that would shoot entire magazine staff and hostages behind being offended by a cartoon.

A little boy asked Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA, “When can I get advertised?” He meant, of course, “baptized” but he made the right point–baptism is advertising that we are Christians. 3 Baptism places a blessing on us.  It brings peace and love to surround us.  It starts us on our way with guardian angels and the joy that God brings to all God’s creatures.  With merciful love and care baptism ensures for us blessings of light and wisdom, faith and trust.  We are embraced by the love of parents and friends, by holy words and pious prayers.  May our lives always be filled with God’s love, turned inside out with God’s wisdom and may they both guide our feet. Amen.

Prayer

O God, uphold us by your Holy Spirit. Renew in us the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, a healthy respect for God’s love, and the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen

1         http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/

2                   http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_baptism_of_jesus.htm

3                   http://www.kentcrockett.com/cgi-bin/illustrations/index.cgi?topic=Baptism

Sermon: January 4, 2015

Sermon:  “Seeking the Light”                                                   January 4, 2015

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church                                                                                                   Epiphany Sunday

Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12 (MSG)

 

2 1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village in Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

 

3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religious scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

 

5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem in Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

 

“It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,

no longer bringing up the rear.

From you will come the leader

who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

 

7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then Herod told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

 

9-10 Instructed by Herod, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the home of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

 

11 They entered the house and saw the infant Jesus in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

 

Prayer

We are drawn to your Light like moths to a flame, Great God; fill our emptiness with your grace as your glory shines in all places; lead us to the wonders of hope, as the light of faith reveals the way. As we anticipate our dreams will come true, we thank you for revealing the mystery to us, Spirit of Epiphany. Amen.

Our Experience

Do you know what would have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men who came to visit Mary and the baby Jesus? They would have asked for directions long before reaching Jerusalem, they would have arrived on time and helped deliver the baby, then cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be Peace on Earth. (Anonymous)  But alas. . .

We don’t even know how many magi there actually were. We assume three because there were three gifts. We do know they were men of science: astronomers, highly educated, wealthy, upper class citizens, and we assume  revered in their Gentile culture. These wise academics were obviously not prone to faith in Jewish religion, but their training and experience allowed them to read and follow stars. These men were virtually the exact opposite of the shepherds. Tradition now holds that they were probably Zoroastrian priests.  In essence they were seekers after the truth, visionary, and spiritual. They did indeed we are told arrive at the right place at the right time and I might add they are yet another example of God doing God’s best work through the unlikely.

Our Experience Expanded

And then there is Herod the Great who reigned from 37 B.C.E.to 4 A.D.  He was a non-Jew, an Idumean, who was appointed a ruler by the Roman Senate. Prior to his encounter with the Magi he had already murdered his wife, three sons, a mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, an uncle, and several others. No wonder he had no problem killing babies in Bethlehem. His reign, however, was noted for splendor. He constructed many theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, and fortresses, however, his greatest work was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, begun in 20 B.C.E. and totally completed in 64 A.D. We all remember that it was then destroyed by the Romans six years later (in 70 A.D.). Herod by all accounts was toxic in personality, power hungry, self-absorbed, and ruthless.                                                                                             The chief priests and teachers of the Law from whom Herod sought advice were trained and educated in the details of scripture, but appeared to be spiritually uninformed. They knew the right answers, but seemed not to have possessed the right heart; at least their encounter with Herod would indicate that.

Our Traditions

I was amused last week when I discovered the source of our English word “disaster” in Rev. Dan Smith’s weekly e-newsletter. 1 It comes from the medieval word “dis-astron” (dis = to be without and astron = the word for star). It is said that the root meaning of this word comes from the very Christmas star of today’s lesson. As I thought about it I became acutely aware that many of the disasters in my life came about when I tried to live without the star, without the light of Christ guiding me. I then concluded that the same is true with the disasters we create in our country and in our world. We make big messes when we do not follow closely Jesus as a source of light. In fact Jesus was pretty wise to teach that the light and love of God that was in him now lives in and through each of us as it is so well stated in our Mission Statement on the front cover of the bulletin.  And I am convinced that this is what the teaching of Jesus about “You are the light of the world” means.

Re-mything Our Traditions

The Magi were searching for greater meaning in life. Money, power, position and titles were not issues for them. They were seeking something that would help them make sense out of what was for them a bigger picture.

Notice the results of the actions of these Biblical characters. Herod, self-absorbed and power-hungry, was led to frustration, failure, loneliness and some have deduced serious mental illness. The chief priests and teachers of the Law, found cold hard facts but totally missed the meaning of them. And yet the Magi, sincere seekers of truth, meaning, and substance in life, discovered what they were looking for. We are well served noticing the actions of the Magi. This exceptional heavenly body got the attention of these professional star gazers. They focused completely on the light provided by the star.

Where is our star? Here at St. Paul’s? In our own lives? What is it that has us feeling unsettled, questioning our meaning, our purpose, our destiny? What has seized our attention during this first week of the New Year?  What will be our moment of Epiphany today? Is Jesus our source of light?  Has God used a situation in life, a tragedy, a sickness, a financial crisis, a friend, or maybe a good book to shed light on how we live our lives? Are we prepared to ask with each new encounter:  What would Jesus do?

The Magi set out on a journey seeking truth, meaning, and certainty. God led them on a phenomenal journey. God has led us to St. Paul’s this morning, on purpose. Not one of us is here by accident.

The Magi searched in the wrong place–Jerusalem. It was logical to go to Jerusalem because it was the capitol city, so naturally they’d go there to look for a king. However, if they had known the whole story according to the prophet Micah that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, had the Wise Men done their homework it would have been a much short, but less interesting quest.  I speak for us all I suspect when I say that we often think we know more than we know. As a result we search where we think we ought to look, only to discover we are looking in all the wrong places.

When we know the whole story we know to go to Jesus from the get go. God put those Magi back on course. God looks at the sincerity of our hearts and guides us in our search for truth, meaning, and certainty for our lives. This year St. Paul’s will celebrate 105 years as a congregation.  We will look back to that history as a source of inspiration and light, but we will also be looking forward to the light Jesus will shine on us as we explore our options and make plans for the future of this family of God. During 2015 may we all seek the light of Christ every moment of our lives!  Amen.

Prayer

We rejoice in the mystery made plain through the good news of a baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  May this good news transform us and guide us as we seek to follow the star of love and light. Amen.

 

http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/pmol/webdec30.htm

1Rev. Dan Smith – e-newsletter 1-2-15