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Posts in Brenna Rubio
Someone to Move In

As we finish off our week focusing on justice, would you grab a pen and a journal or piece of scrap paper and spend 5m listening to a spoken word by Propaganda, Justice and the Gospel? As you listen, keep your pen in hand to jot down any phrases or words that stand out to you.

Then talk these things over with God. Where did you feel comfort? Where did you feel grief, challenge, invitation? How do you sense God moving, and how will you follow?

A Picture of Just Community

On Sunday, we looked at this picture of biblical justice, of community wholeness, of Cornel West’s “what love looks like in public.” Read it over again today, looking for traces of these three markers:

(1) Justice is basic and required, not optional or “extra credit.”

(2) Justice doesn’t just address symptoms, it goes for the root of social issues - greed and hoarding v. making sure everyone has access to the good stuff of life.

(3) Justice creates a community of mutuality, where everyone has equal status - everyone gives and everyone receives.

“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.” Deut. 24:19–22

Where have you experienced community like this, even in a small way? Thank God for those glimpses of lived justice. One at a time, pray for your church, neighborhood, and country, that they would embody justice more and more. Ask God to show you how you can be even a small part of that movement, today.

Our Original Sin - A Lament

Racism has been called America’s original sin, and heartbreakingly, the church hasn’t just been affected by this sin - it’s been complicit. Read this prophetic word from former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

We bear today the legacy of a Christianity corrupted into a religion of slaveholders, which can’t talk about biblical justice without declaring itself guilty. For some of us this has meant the ongoing pain and anger of being part of marginalized communities; for some of us this has meant constant confusion over how to follow God’s call to justice when we’ve been taught so thoroughly in words, deeds, and institutional forms over the years to neglect it.

Read over these words from Amos 5:7-9 and notice your feelings - anger, sadness, hope… Lament this legacy and how it’s affected you and people you love. Ask God to show you his heart for justice and to make your own heart more like God’s.

“There are those who turn justice into bitterness, and cast righteousness to the ground. He who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns midnight into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land—the Lord is his name. With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin.”

Lamenting Our Original Sin

Racism has been called America’s original sin, and heartbreakingly, the church hasn’t just been affected by this sin - it’s been complicit. Read this prophetic word from former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

We bear today the legacy of a Christianity corrupted into a religion of slaveholders, which can’t talk about biblical justice without declaring itself guilty. For some of us this has meant the ongoing pain and anger of being part of marginalized communities; for some of us this has meant constant confusion over how to follow God’s call to justice when we’ve been taught so thoroughly in words, deeds, and institutional forms over the years to neglect it.

Read over these words from Amos 5:7-9 and notice your feelings - anger, sadness, hope… Lament this legacy and how it’s affected you and people you love. Ask God to show you his heart for justice and to make your own heart more like God’s.

“There are those who turn justice into bitterness, and cast righteousness to the ground. He who made the Pleiades and Orion, who turns midnight into dawn and darkens day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out over the face of the land—the Lord is his name. With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold and brings the fortified city to ruin.”

Be Faithful to Your Place

Bill and I had the opportunity to learn recently from Jonathan Brooks, pastor in a Chicago neighborhood and man who embodies commitment to place and practicing presence in community. (Check out his recent book, Church Forsaken, HERE.)

This morning, take a few minutes to read slowly through the passage that’s been formative for Pastor Brooks, and hear God’s invitation to put deeper roots into your community, however you’ve ended up there, and however long you plan to stay. (Notice God was talking to exiles transplanted to Babylon against their will, and he asks them to become a true part of their new community, even though he’ll be taking them home to Jerusalem eventually.) What could you do today or over the next few days to get to know a neighbor better, or to seek the peace and prosperity of your neighborhood? What if in a week or two you could fill in a few more names on yesterday’s block map? Talk with God about these things.

Jeremiah 29:4-7

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 

Ideas to Spark Your Own

  • Spend time daily or weekly in a common space (neighborhood park, neighborhood walks, apartment common area, front yard) so conversations with neighbors can happen naturally.

  • Support local business and get to know the owners and other regular customers.

  • Sign up for a neighborhood newsletter or social media page.

  • Find out when the next neighborhood association meeting is & commit to going.

  • Decide on a loop to walk regularly and pick up trash, chatting with people as you go.

  • Invite a neighbor you already know a little bit over for dinner or coffee, or out for a drink. Invite them to share their story.

  • Partner with a neighbor you’re already friendly with to host a neighborhood gathering - from a potluck dinner & game night, to cookies and juice out where all the kids play anyway.

  • Google a social issue on your heart and your neighborhood (ex. “homelessness Long Beach”) and see where you could volunteer, meeting people and contributing your gifts.

Bonus Thought from Pastor Brooks:

“Can you remain faithful to your place when the only thing changing is you?”

Love in Public

Jesus, who taught us that love of God and love of neighbor together sum up God’s law, drew from a rich history, a common refrain in Jewish Scriptures. Only instead of “love of neighbor,” the older scriptures call it “justice.” Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) Justice and love of neighbors are intimately connected. I love how philosopher and social activist Cornel West puts it: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

If you haven’t had a chance to fill out a block map yet, you’ll want to do that now. You can print one from here or just scratch one out on paper. Then pick one of the communities you’re part (home, work, school…), one where you can know people face to face and hear their stories. Write in the names of your 8 nearest “neighbors” or an identifying characteristic if you don’t know their names yet.

Now with these people in mind, read over the following passages two times: the first time just as written, the second time substituting “love of neighbor” wherever you see the word “justice.” How do you sense God nudging you as you read? Talk with God about these things, and then take a minute to pray for your neighbors.

Deut. 10:17-19
“For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords,
the great, the mighty, and the awesome God
who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

Psalm 82:3-4
Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.

Isaiah 30:18
Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the LORD is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him.

What Drives Out Fear

I have been thinking about the notion of perfect love as being without fear, and what that means for us in a world that's becoming increasingly xenophobic, tortured by fundamentalism and nationalism. - bell hooks

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. - 1 John 4:18-19

What makes it so hard for us to join Jesus in the margins, to walk with him in the wild border places with people who are different, often very different from us?  What are we afraid of? What are we pushing away as we draw instead toward power and comfort?

Would you take a few moments to sit quietly with Jesus this morning and meditate on these things?  Perhaps set a timer for 3-5 minutes, and focus on a simple breath prayer with two words, fear and love - slowly breathing out all your fears and then inhaling deeply all the love God has for you and all God’s children.  Allow Jesus to fill you with strong, bold love.

Say Her Name

Let’s return this morning to that story of Jesus centering the margins in Luke 17, and zoom in on the one leper who responds differently than the others.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well. - vv. 15-19

The “othering” this man has experienced has come from two different directions - he’s marginalized as a leper and also as a Samaritan, “foreign” to the neighboring Jewish culture.  This phenomena where different forms of oppression overlap and make the risk and injury more intense is called intersectionality.

Jesus gives a special blessing to this intersectional leper-foreigner: “Your faith has made you whole.”  How might we join Jesus in giving special attention to those in double or triple jeopardy amongst us? Would you consider giving an extra 15 minutes of your time today to watch this short TED talk and learn more?  Perhaps you’d join in “saying her name” at the end as an act of devotion - a prayerful commitment that just as God sees his daughters, we will see and care, too.

God's Gathered Peoples

This past Sunday we looked at Luke 17:11-19, a story of Jesus traveling at the margins of two cultures and drawing people towards himself - in effect, centering the margins (a powerful phrase coined by author and social activist bell hooks).  What exactly happens when people with diverse backgrounds come together in relationship around Jesus? In Gal. 3:28, we read:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

With that tug that homogeneity always has on us, the gravitational pull toward comfort, it’s tempting to read this verse as a call toward uniformity - to imagine there is some genderless, cultureless, just average or normal version of Christ follower we can all be together.  Of course, by normal, we either mean our kind of normal (like us) or the culture’s kind of normal (white and male).

No, this verse shares a vision not of uniformity, but of unity and equality at the foot of the cross.  Other places in the Bible make it clear that we bring all of ourselves to Jesus, and that we gather around him together in a delightful parade of diversity!  Consider this prophetic picture of the culmination and renewal of all things:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” - Rev. 7:9-10

What does it mean to you that Jesus invites you to bring all of who you are into relationship with him and into complicated, beautiful relationship with others?  What draws you about that picture? What feels difficult? Talk with him about these things.

Empire & Resistance

When we recognize that cultural diversity was God’s original plan, another early story in the Bible becomes easier to understand:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. - Gen. 11:1-9

The people are resisting God’s plans to fill the earth and develop a beautiful variety of cultures!  Instead, they’re drawing together into a homogenous lump, desiring prematurely to settle and get comfortable and prosperous.  (Ironically, though we often assume homogeneity is an asset and source of power, and it certainly can make us more comfortable, all sorts of studies suggest diverse groups are actually much more potent.)

In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil asks us to consider our own towers of Babel, the ways that we still today “use our human ingenuity, intellect, creativity and technology to… rebel against God’s plan to bless all people” and to recognize that “God resists our empire-building tendency toward homogeneity.”

Would you talk over these things with Jesus today?  Where do you see towers of Babel at work in your world?  Where do you see God at work, resisting?

No One Culture

Often at City Church, we talk about the imago Dei, the incredible goodness of our original design, reflecting the very image of God.  Listen to one of the Bible’s opening scenes:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” - Gen. 1:27-28

Now in the same creation story, we find that this new humanity was meant to multiply and to move - to have children who had children who had children, and would migrate and spread and adapt and fill the earth in a variety of places and conditions, to cultivate and create with ingenuity and diversity.  Pastor and author Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil describes this “cultural mandate” this way in her book, Roadmap to Reconciliation:

“When God commanded the first human beings to ‘fill the earth,’ it was a decree to create cultures, because no one culture, people or language can adequately reflect the splendor of God.”

Do you hear the implications - diversity is the original design! For it’s together in our cultural diversity that we show the imago Dei more fully.  Why don’t you take a few minutes this morning to wonder about and thank Jesus for the goodness in your own cultural heritage - the shared stories, ideas, art, food and other traditions that have been passed to you.  And then look for an opportunity in your day to ask a friend with a different background what they appreciate about their own cultural heritage.

Sabbath Wholeness

Sabbath, we’ve seen, can be twisted when we fear its freedom and try to over-control it, turning rest into regulations. It can also be twisted when we forget that it is meant as a gift for the whole creation, whole communities, not any one person.

As you read this story again today, imagine ignoring a desperately thirsty animal or even a crying baby, ignoring their distress for hours and hours, and trying to justify it because you need rest - God wants you to have rest. No, God wants his whole creation to experience life together, to get into healthy, life-sustaining, freedom-creating rhythms together so that together we can experience a deep and true rest.

Where do you notice a temptation within yourself to make your patterns of rest something less than true sabbath?  Maybe you tell yourself it’s what you need after a hard day or hard week, yet it leaves your soul or the people around you feeling thirsty and neglected.

On the other hand, what practices have you noticed are life-giving for you and the communities you’re part of?  Think of times alone and with family, friends and neighbors where you have sensed not just happiness, but joy, a deep and even holy peace.  Sacred moments in perhaps simple circumstances - that restored your souls. How could you intentionally make more time and space for true sabbath?

Luke 13:10-17 (NIV):

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

You are Set Free

This morning’s passage follows directly after the parable of the fig tree, and it centers around the idea of Sabbath, of building intentional rest into our lives, just as God did at the beginning of time when after working for six days to create our good world, God simply stopped. God took time to just be and appreciate the beauty of life - what delicious freedom. How amazing that we are invited into that freedom as well!

As you read the passage, notice how the anxiety the religious leaders have grown to feel around the freedom of Sabbath - how they have tried to make it manageable by systematizing it and taming it with rules. Notice how they try to control Jesus’ work, insisting that the people conform to their rules and trying to shape where and how God’s healing power will flow.

The freedom to rest, be, be restored, be grateful… does that ever make you nervous? Have you experienced in yourself or in others that desire to make Jesus a little more tame and predictable, a little more manageable? Talk with Jesus about these things this morning - ask Jesus to help you live more deeply into the freedom he offers, for your own sake and others.

Luke 13:10-17 (NIV):

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

Walls, Come Tumbling

The message from Sunday, Sept. 30th, 2018 - since we’re having some technical issues with our podcast, Brenna decided to approximate it here in written form!

We’ve been wandering on purpose together through the book of Luke, and our focus recently has been on the idea of “learning to be little” with Jesus.  Today’s conversation fits that theme, and also begins to shift us towards a new one: Jesus, Deconstructionist.  Now the term “deconstruction” can sound a bit intimidating if you’re not already familiar with it, and if we delve into its philosophical roots, things do get a bit heady.  But at its simplest, deconstruction is really just asking questions about how we know what we think we know and if we can really know those things.

In terms of faith, deconstruction works something like this.  Imagine your understanding of the world, and especially of the spiritual, of the good life, as a house you’re building out of blocks.  You start out with some simple pieces and add on over time, building a more and more complicated structure – God is good, I can learn about God by reading the Bible, Jesus loves me…  But inevitably, challenges come, things that make you want to rethink your design, to pull a few bricks free and reconsider if and where they really belong.  You read a certain book, or meet a certain person; you lose a baby, a relationship or a job. Soon pieces may be flying everywhere!  And brick by brick, the house of your early  understanding is pulled down.  Sometimes the process is relatively gradual; sometimes it’s so fast and fierce, a wrecking ball to the foundations of your faith, that demolition feels like a more appropriate word.  You wonder if things can ever be put together again.

What if Jesus embraces the messy process of deconstruction?  What if he sees in the midst of this chaos and confusion that we feel, an opportunity to build our faith even stronger and better than before?  We’re going to find a space to wrestle and imagine our way through these questions in an unexpected place – the classic story of the widow’s mite, read in its full context.

Luke 20:45-21:6

While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” 

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

If you’ve been part of church life for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this story before, or at least part of it.  The middle section above, the first four verses in Luke 21, are traditionally taught as a standalone unit, and the widow is presented as a beautiful example, heralded by none other than Jesus, of cheerful and sacrificial giving.  The take-away point for listeners, of course, is that we too should give, to whatever the point of true sacrifice is for us, because that is the kind of heart God applauds, the kind of person God call us to be. 

Now this is the point where I start to mess with things a little, and that may make you happy or it may make you nervous.  You see, while this reading of the story can feel encouraging, validating the heart behind acts of generosity that might seem small or even a little shabby on the surface (an invitation to a simple dinner with a family of limited means), it can also feel manipulative.  How awkward (or if you’re more of a skeptic, how convenient) for a religious person like me to teach from a text that seems to instruct you to give, and give a lot, to God, which by implication probably means this church.  Give so much it hurts!  This text can be encouraging; it can also be uncomfortable.

Let’s problematize it some more – pull out a few more bricks from the traditional interpretation. (Footnote 1)  If we continue just to look at this set of four verses, do they really say what for so long we’ve thought they mean?  It’s interesting to notice that there are actually no words describing the state of the widow’s heart or what her motivations are; the text just describes very matter-of-factly what she did.  There are also none of the phrases Jesus commonly uses to show his approval or admiration of someone - no “go and do likewise,” no “she is not far from the kingdom,” not even a “he looked on her and loved her.”  Given that all of these words are missing, it’s at least worth exploring whether we’ve actually missed the point of the passage.  

If you were to go back and carefully read again, beginning at Luke 20:45, you might be startled to notice some key contextual details.  We can tell these earlier verses are closely connected to the widow’s story in a few ways. First, they’re connected by time and place.  Jesus is teaching in the temple immediately prior to his observation of the widow; that’s why Luke 21:1 describes him as simply looking up to see her.  Second, they are connected by this very word, widow, repeated in both sections.  Roving revolutionary and religious reformer that Jesus was, the point of his teaching in the temple was to warn his listeners and especially his followers about the self-interested agendas of their spiritual leaders, as illustrated by their showiness and pomp and by the way they “devour widows’ houses.” (20:47) That phrase, devouring widows’ houses, seems a bit mysterious at first – what exactly are they doing to the widows’, to the vulnerable and marginalized among them?  And then along comes a widow to illustrate Jesus’s concern in the flesh.

This widow, you see, coming to the temple treasury “put in all she had to live.” (21:4) It’s so interesting that we’ve learned to hear this in the story as a good or even an okay thing, when practically speaking, what Jesus is saying is that through her giving, she bankrupted herself.  Now while there are certainly places in scripture where Jesus challenges his followers to give all they have to the poor and live in radical dependence on God (e.g., Luke 18:22), the same can’t be said about the temple treasury.  True, all throughout scripture the giving of gifts dedicated to God is presented as normal, expected, and even spiritually healthy.  Also true - a sense of proportionality is meant to permeate that ethos of giving.(Footnote 2)  In the first chapters of Leviticus, for example, a variety of possible sin sacrifices are described, from expensive gifts like lambs (5:6), to humble ones like a bit of your best flour (5:11).  The determining factor on what kind of gift you should bring?  What you can afford (5:7, 11).  What you can afford…  What you have capacity for…  Key phrases we should come back to. 

Given his diatribe against the religious leaders, it’s clear that Jesus holds them responsible for twisting God’s original purposes.  This is how they were devouring widows’ houses, pressuring and demanding more from them than they could really afford. Jesus wasn’t praising the widow, he was defending her!  He was angry with the spiritual authorities of the day on her behalf.

I so wish I could just use this story to point fingers at other religious leaders in our world today, to storm over the obvious abuses of pastors asking sick people to send them outrageous sums of money as “faith seeds” to secure their healing, or suggesting that people looking for relief from enormous debt make those “faith gifts” by credit card. But I know that wouldn’t be honest.  Run-of-the-mill, non-televised religious leaders like me still devour widows’ houses every day.  We do it every time we pressure you, more or less subtly, to give more – in time, money or even emotional energy – than you can really afford.  Every time we let our agendas (and they’re often such beautiful agendas, all about building the church so people can know God and love others), when we let our beautiful agendas get in the way of God’s best for the person right in front of us, in all your complexity, we devour you.  I’m so sorry.

You know, thinking about how long we’ve gotten this passage wrong, if it’s any consolation, Jesus’s followers didn’t understand what he was teaching them either.  In Luke 21:5-7, they’re still right there in the temple, still talking about gifts (another word showing the continuity of these anecdotes), and all they can see is how beautiful the space is, how fancy.  It’s an incredible symbol of religious power – a symbol built, as we’ve seen, on the backs of the poor and the marginalized through a subtle twisting of God’s plan.  It’s a power the disciples are perhaps dreaming about sharing, now that they’ve been invited to the inner circle of this up and coming rabbi.  Unsurprisingly, Jesus is less impressed.  This temple, he reminds them, will not even last.  Like the bricks that keep tumbling in our attempts to understand life and get it right, every last stone of the temple will be knocked to the ground.

When churches go really wrong, friends, when they start devouring people, so often it’s because they begin to forget their original purpose.  They think it’s their job to protect the institution – to defend and keep building up their leaders and their agenda.  To be clear, institutions aren’t bad – they’re powerful.  And power, as we all know, can be used for good or for evil.  So we celebrate when companies commit to paying decent wages and investing in their employees, and when churches devote themselves to serving their communities and to neighborhood flourishing.  And we mourn (sometimes after we rage), when banks prey on the vulnerable, or the authority we give our law enforcement officers is abused. When powerful men are revealed as sexual predators.

The #metoo movement can, sadly, provide an easy and helpful illustration of how the church devours the vulnerable in her midst.  I say easy because of the multitude of examples of churches quickly rallying around leaders who have been accused, rather than caring for and listening carefully to those who have brought forward their stories of pain and abuse.  Of congregations giving leaders standing ovations for vague and limited words of contrition, instead of insisting on a humble clarity and a commitment to justice for the victims.  Yet even in these horrible stories, there have been glimmers of hope, as churches begin to understand and repent of this reflexive defensiveness of their leaders and ministries, a reflex that does so much damage to the already-battered souls of survivors.

Because of course it’s not about the institution – that was never the main point.  No institution, no church, no ministry will last forever, and that’s actually ok.  Because it’s actually all about Jesus, about the community he’s gathering, the work he started and invited us into and will complete no matter what.  It’s about that work of healing and restoring what’s been damaged and warped in us and  in the world.  So when we realize that we’ve started to forget that, when we can see that what we’ve built has warped and needs correction, it’s ok, it’s good, it’s necessary, for us to ask some questions.  It’s ok, it’s good, it’s necessary for us to pull down some towers, dismantle some structures, and grieve and struggle and then… try again. Because it’s not just what we’re building  - it’s how we’re building and why that matters.

Here’s one of the how’s, one of the guiding values, we want to live by as a community: UNFORCED.  Listen to Jesus’s words to people who, like the widow, have been eaten up and worn out by religion:

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”” Matt. 11:28-30 (MSG)

Isn’t “unforced rhythms of grace” an intriguing and inviting phrase?  Here’s the thing about rhythms – they are intrinsically about change, about periods of activity or work alternating with periods of silence and rest.  So a rhythm of grace might be about alternating periods (each day, each week, each year) of giving and serving, of pouring yourself out for others, with periods of rest and renewal, of soaking in the grace available to you.

What if you have the inner freedom to discern and to choose, to talk with Jesus about what you can actually afford to give and what you need to receive?  What if we as your leaders commit to honoring that freedom and apologizing when we begin to put our agenda over your soul?  That might look like celebrating people who realize they need to give less financially right alongside those who decide to give more when both are hearing and responding to Jesus’s work in their lives.  It might also look like encouraging you not to come to a meeting or to volunteer for something if being involved would put you over your capacity in other areas of your life, like family and friends.  “What’s my capacity” should be a question we encourage you to pray over frequently, whether it leads you to have more people over for dinner that week or less, to give more or to rest more.  (So don’t be surprised if we roll out a little speaker unit some Sunday in place of the full AV set-up – we’ll celebrate that if it means we didn’t devour some poor team member that morning!)

Here’s a different way of picturing what this kind of UNFORCED community is like. (Footnote 3)  We’re so used to imagining leadership as coming from the top, managers from high atop the pyramid, barking out orders – build here, put that brick there, this way, not that way.  What if spiritual leadership is meant to be more organic and work from the bottom, like the trunk of a spreading tree?  The trunk isn’t particularly exciting; the branches are where the growth happens, the beautiful and dynamic stuff like blooming and bearing fruit.  The trunk’s job is just to help connect those branches with the nourishment they need from the roots.  You, my friends, are the branches.

If we commit to living this way, as a community, as an institution, it may not increase our budget.  We may not grow bigger; I’m pretty confident we’re not going to grow much fancier!  What if we focused instead on growing deeper, closer to Jesus and to each other?  What if we grew wider and yes, even fruitier, and made more and more of a difference in the community God’s planted us in?  We might find more people joining us on a Sunday morning, we might not.  But we would be growing in the ways that matter most. 

Postscript: At the end of this sermon, I invited up anyone who’d like to respond tangibly during the next worship song by adding or pulling down some bricks from the Duplo house a young friend had built for me up front.  A few accepted and made some small adjustments.  When the service was over and people were milling around talking, a woman came over, a mixture of eagerness and tentativeness, asking if she could still work with the bricks.  Given an “of course,” she rapidly went to work, enthusiastically yanking brick after brick apart, laying almost the whole building to waste!  “Are these the roots?” she asked me.  Friend, if you tell me those are the roots, they’re the roots.  “Good,” she responded, “I’ll leave the roots.”   

 

1  The original paper presenting this alternative reading of the widow’s mite can be found here: http://www.pas.rochester.edu/~tim/study/Widow's%20Mite.pdf.

2 Thanks to V.R. Marianne Zahn for this insight, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/vr-marianne-zahn/post_10560_b_8596712.html.

3  This imagery is borrowed from a quirky and wonderful business classic, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, “The Pyramid v. the Plum Tree,” by Gordon MacKenzie.

Rhythms of Grace

One thing that strikes me from yesterday’s reading in Matthew is that living in “rhythms” of grace will necessarily mean change.  A rhythm is not all one thing.  It’s periods of one thing alternating with periods of another - in music, for instance, activity or play alternating with silence and rest.

Perhaps one way of understanding “rhythms of grace” is that there will be fluctuations in how we balance giving and receiving: are we in a season where we sense we have a lot we can give others: emotionally, with our time or through our resources?  Or are we in a season where we sense some real limits in our ability to give, instead needing time to rest and restore or just deal with life, allowing others to minister to us?

Let’s read that passage again, this time asking Jesus for the emotional freedom and awareness to live in the rhythms he invites us into.  Talk with him about the season you’re in right now – today or as you think about your next week.  What is your need to receive and soak in grace?  What is your capacity to give and serve others?  It doesn’t need to be all one or the other; in fact, it rarely is.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matt. 11:28-30

Keep Company

On Monday we talked with God about ways we’ve felt like the widow in Luke 21, “devoured” by religious leaders and other authority figures – asked to give more than we can truly afford to, emotionally, in time, with our money or other resources.  Now imagine Jesus speaking these words to you and others with similar bruises:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matt. 11:28-30

What words, images or feelings capture you as you read slowly through this passage?  What practically might it look for someone to join you on your spiritual journey like Jesus offers to here?  How could you yourself walk alongside others to lighten their load?  Talk with Jesus about these things.

(For additional, admittedly eclectic inspiration, check out this visual from the business world, a book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball, illustrating leadership that supports and nourishes rather than forcing or demanding: the plum tree v. the pyramid.)

The Time will Come

The follow-up to the classic story of the widow’s gift (Luke 21:1-4), which Jesus tells to illustrate the religious leaders “devouring” the marginalized and taking more from them than they could afford, goes like this:

vv. 5-6, Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.

Though the disciples are impressed with the temple’s beauty, built on the backs of the poor, Jesus reminds them that it wasn’t built to last. No human building or human institution is - including City Church! (That’s actually a freeing realization, freeing us from feeling like we must build and protect the institution at all costs…)

Pray over these words from 1 Cor. 3:9-15 about the kind of building God is interested in:

You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done...

How are you experiencing Jesus as “foundation” these days? If your life or the community you’re part of (like City Church) is a building, what does it look like - what is it made out of, and how are you feeling about that? Talk with Jesus about these things.

Meeting Jesus at the Margins

One of the things the story of the widow’s mite in its full context (Luke 20:45-21:6) reminds us of is Jesus’ heart for those at the margins. Take a few quiet moments today to connect with that heart through these verses and the poem below. What thoughts, questions and emotions come up for you as you pray?

“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Luke 24:10 − 11

Surprising Son of God
you revealed the truth to women 
who were not believed by men. 
You are in the voices of the unbelieved
and the ignored.
So bring us towards each other. 
Bring us towards
the truest truth. 
Because here, if anywhere, 
will we find you. 
Amen.
-from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

HT: Fred Harrell at City Church San Francisco

For further reflection: City Church is grateful to be a small part of a much-needed collection of sermons and resources addressing domestic and sexual violence, compiled by Sojourners and released in the last few days. You can browse them and (for our devotional readers outside of Long Beach) find churches in your area involved in this important conversation at https://sojo.net/100sermons.

Devoured

On Sunday we read through a classic Jesus story, one you may have heard many times if you’ve been in “church world” for a while…

Luke 21:1-4: As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

This time, though, we heard it in the context of Jesus’ teaching right before he “looked up”…

Luke 20:45-47, While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Widows like the one Jesus saw putting in her gift, the one that was more than she could really afford - they were being devoured by religious leaders concerned more about themselves and their own agendas than the widows’ souls. Jesus wasn’t mad at the widow, of course, but he also wasn’t praising her - he was mad for her!

Have you ever felt devoured by religious or other leaders? Like they have pressured you for more than you had to give, in time, money, or even emotion? Take a few minutes and allow yourself to remember one of those times today, and imagine Jesus in the situation with you, actually angry for you and sticking up for you. Talk with Jesus about what that means for you, how it feels.

Ultreya (Onward)

A poem often shared by pilgrims walking the ancient trails of the Camino de Santiago, to encourage us as well.  Why not read it over, then spend a few minutes with Jesus in silent gratitude for the long path he's walked with you already?  So glad to be on this journey with you, friends, with all its twists and turns.

Ultreya (Onward),
by Carli Di Bortolo.

Walk
Alone with others,
Thou thyself thy rivals
Thou thyself finding thy companions
Thou thyself seeing thy enemies
thou thyself making thy brothers

Walk
Thy head knows not where thy feet take thy heart

Walk
Pilgrim of the world

Walk
Thou art born for the way

Walk
Thou hast an appointment
Where? With whom?

Walk
Thy steps, thy words
The road, thy song
the fatigue, thy prayer
And thy silence, finally thy speech.

Walk
thou art born for the way
That of pilgrimage
That other way leading to thyself
and thy quest

Walk
So that thou may find
at the shrine at the end of the world
Thy peace
Thy joy

Walk
Already, God walks with thee.