Love Your Enemies


It’s easy to hate those haters right back, as the psalmist does.  After all, they deserve it, right?  But Jesus teaches something very different.  Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.  For that teaching we can safely quote G. K. Chesterton: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found hard, and not tried.

Martin Luther King did love his enemies.  He really, literally, did that every day.  People attacked him, bombed his house, jailed him, spat upon him, and he never returned anything other than love and respect.  He learned nonviolent direct action from Gandhi, who learned it from Tolstoy, who learned it from Jesus. I can’t imagine what his prayer life was like. King was a great preacher; I invite you to go online and read some of his sermons.  Now I’m just going to quote him a little.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

 Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension... We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured.

Here is one that convicts me.  
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

And finally… Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

*****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 14, 2018

Known and Loved

Psa. 139  1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
 
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10       even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
12       even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day,
            for darkness is as light to you.
 
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
            you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
            Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
            intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
      In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
            when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
            I come to the end—I am still with you.
 
19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
            and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
            And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

When I started reading the Psalms, Psalm 139 resonated for me.  I had been looking for God for so long, and I had felt so alone, and there was Psalm 139 promising me that I could never lose God again, no matter how far I wandered.  Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.  Words can’t describe the feeling of reassurance that psalm gave me.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that many people heard a very different message in this psalm:  God is watching you. You can run, but you cannot hide.  And why would you want to?  But as I hit this psalm a few more times in my devotional reading, I realized that sometimes I did try to hide from God.  Usually not intentionally.  It just kind of creeps up on me.  And then this psalm is a good wake-up call.  Because trying to hide from God makes us look like the ostrich trying to hide from danger by burying its head in the sand: blind, helpless, and looking really stupid.

I’ve hidden from God enough now to recognize the symptoms.  Something feels out of kilter.  I become anxious, or glum, and I don’t want to pray or meditate. I know the cure, painful as it is.  It is to face myself, not myself from a week ago or a month ago that I already kind of understand, but the confusion that has sprung up in the meantime, and underneath that, the fear or pain or grief that I don’t want to feel. When God seems far away, God is not the problem.  I am.  God already knows us through and through, and God can deal with us no matter what we do.  It’s me that sometimes has trouble dealing with me. 

Lots of us, lots of the time, are hiding from God, and from ourselves.  Some people do it in spectacular ways, through alcohol abuse, or other addictions.  Most of us do it in safer ways, like staying so busy or distracted we don’t have to think about our lives.

God knows all of it, though God usually doesn’t force that knowledge on us.  But if we are not honest, what do we have to say to God?  Nothing useful.  How can God guide us if we have our heads in the sand?  Our honesty about our own lives, even if it’s painful or shameful, allows God to begin the work of healing and restoring us, of guiding us into the abundant life that we are promised.  

And that is where the Good News comes in.  God doesn’t know us through and through in order to shame us or judge us or punish us, but rather to heal and guide us. If we bring our whole selves to God, not just the pretty parts, God can transform us. When we begin to admit our own hurts and faults, we can become more compassionate to others.  Sometimes we even discover that that character flaw, that persistent failing that caused us so much grief, can be used by God for a good purpose, that not just anybody could accomplish, and need not be a flaw at all. Stubbornness can become persistence.  People pleasing can become thoughtfulness.  A big mouth can learn to speak the truth in love.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  If your personality is off the bell curve and you have trouble fitting in, or if your sexuality or your gender identity is not typical, fear may precede wonder. Still you are made by God, and loved just how you are.  Trusting this, we will not become perfect people, but more honest people, who have compassion for others because we have faced our own fear and shame and guilt, and experienced God’s forgiveness and love and transformation.

Psalm 139 and Martin Luther King Day.  It fits, really.  Watch.  King was a deeply faithful Christian, whose courageous personal piety brought him to the political arena.  That was the best way he knew to strive for God’s Kingdom.  He called it the Beloved Community. 

Over fifty years ago, King invited us as a country to face some hard truths about ourselves. With a wide and deep network of fellow workers for justice, he spoke and acted prophetically about the need to change laws that demean people.  At the time he was active, the United Church of Christ was newly formed, and many UCC clergy proudly marched for Civil Rights.

King went to jail not so often for breaking segregation laws, but for marching to protest them, which we would like to think is protected by the first amendment. Not always.  It’s important to remember that some people saw the marches and civil disobedience actions of the Civil Rights movement as lawlessness and anarchy.  They feared for the fate of our country.  Some people still think that.  Some feared for the fate of our country if black people had the same rights they had. That’s certainly true of immigrants today, isn’t it? It’s so convenient to have an enemy to blame all your problems on.  They even managed to connect Civil Rights to communism, the big scare of the day. Ours is terrorism. FBI memos from the 1960’s document this kind of thinking in our government. Today we watch the evening news.  But because of King’s powerful preaching, a different story took hold.  That all people are valued by God.  All people deserve equal rights under the law. That is a Christian message, and it still needs telling.

The Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church voted in 1957 to merge and become the UCC.  Being Congregational means letting the congregation decide, so each local Congregational Christian church had to vote separately to join the UCC.  Several prominent Congregational churches in Southern California did not join the UCC.  The leaders of those churches were stalwart members of the John Birch Society, a political organization whose stated purpose was to fight communism. But among other beliefs, the Birchers equated “American” with “white.”  The church in Newport Beach where I did my internship actually split at that time. The main church became UCC and a minority of the church left to start a “Continuing Congregational” church that did not survive long.  I was told the stated cause of the split was that the new UCC Sunday School curriculum had a picture on the cover of Jesus wearing a short robe with his knees showing.  I’ve never seen that Sunday School cover, but I suspect that Jesus’ knees in that picture were brown, and those Birchers could not abide an organization that portrayed Jesus as a dark-skinned hippie. Our own Orange County has quite a history of systematic racism: the KKK, the John Birch Society, sundowning, restrictive home sales and rentals, that we are only just figuring out how to address.  The psalm says: don’t hide from the ugly truth.

Over fifty years after King and our UCC forebears marched for Civil Rights, systematic and institutional racism seem to be no the upswing.  Or maybe they’re just out in the open.  We can face this tragic situation and prayerfully act to try to change it, or we can put our heads in the sand and hide. Search us O God, and know our thoughts. I don’t have easy answers for you.  But I know that as followers of Jesus the least we can do is speak the truth in love when we see scapegoating and injustice.  And I know how hard that is.

Let me tell you a story of racism in our time that hit me close to home.  My home is in UC Irvine faculty housing.  In September of 2015, five short blocks from my house, a young man my son’s age opened the door of his home and was met by five UC Irvine police officers pointing five guns at him.  He had already been talking to them on the phone from inside the house, trying to convince them it was his own home. Only after a neighbor witnessing this nightmare intervened to vouch for this young man did they step down.  The police had been called by another neighbor who thought the man was breaking into his own home.[1]  This young man is my son’s age.  The only way he was different from my son was the color of his skin. 

I do not have to worry about my son’s encounters with police, but some of my friends do.  I do not have to introduce him to all my neighbors to assure that nobody makes assumptions when he enters his parents’ house.  I never had to have “the talk” with him; my friends have.  Do you know about “the talk?”  Where you coach your child that, when stopped by police, no matter what the reason (or no reason) and no matter how he is treated, he must stay still and calm and behave in a way that is least likely to get him arrested, beaten or killed. And that he is a person of worth, no matter how badly people in treat him.

If you do not know someone personally who has gone through an ordeal like this, you need to befriend a wider set of people.  These things happen all the time, right here and in every community in our country.

Acknowledging the systemic and institutional racism all around us is only a first painful step toward the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God. But hiding, denying it exists, assures we will never get there.

What is the next step?  Probably not the one the speaker of the psalm starts in line 19:  O that you would kill the wicked, O God….  Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. As have said adversaries on both sides of every war and every heated political struggle.

I thought hatred was going out of fashion; instead it seems to be back in fashion.  It’s so handy to have a scapegoat, a group of people to blame, who are responsible for all your economic problems and relationship problems and self-esteem problems.  Immigrants, people of color, queer people, bigots, or liberals.  It’s much harder to target the cultural and societal forces, the powers and principalities, that glamorize greed and unfaithfulness and meanness, and faceless corporations that mechanize jobs, and export them overseas, and break unions, and enrich executives while impoverishing workers.

It’s easy to hate those haters right back, as the psalmist does.  After all, they deserve it, right?  But Jesus teaches something very different.  Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.  For that teaching we can safely quote G. K. Chesterton: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found hard, and not tried.

Martin Luther King did love his enemies.  He really, literally, did that every day.  People attacked him, bombed his house, jailed him, spat upon him, and he never returned anything other than love and respect.  He learned nonviolent direct action from Gandhi, who learned it from Tolstoy, who learned it from Jesus. I can’t imagine what his prayer life was like. King was a great preacher; I invite you to go online and read some of his sermons.  Now I’m just going to quote him a little.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

 Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension... We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion, before it can be cured.

Here is one that convicts me. 
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

And finally… Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Right now I am facing my unwillingness to engage with people who are far on the other side of the political divide from me.  God knows it, and is apparently using King’s words to coax me out of my comfort zone.  We’ll see what happens.

I still find reassurance in this psalm, even when I find myself running from God.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.  Whether the darkness is the current quagmire of hatred we’re in, or my own personal drama, it is the same pain and fear.  And it persists until I give it over to God.  The God of infinite love, who can turn darkness into light.  The God who is just waiting for us to stop hiding and walk into the light.  And who can empower us to forgive, and to love, and to seek the Beloved Community.  Amen.



[1] A Google search of “newuniversity.org university hills community” will produce the story in detail.

You Belong

The Baptism of Jesus, by Vladimir Zagitov

Have you ever wanted a neon sign from God?  Something that you don’t have to decode, not have to guess which part is your own insight, which part is divine, and which part is your guilty conscience?  Well, there are sacraments.  In our Protestant tradition, we have two: baptism and communion.  Sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible gift of God.”  Things we can experience with our senses to represent what is going on at a level we cannot reliably sense.  And the gift of baptism is: You belong. You belong to God’s family through the power of Jesus.  You are forgiven.  You are made new in the image of God. Rely on it.

Unlike communion, baptism is something we preachers are only supposed to serve up to you once.  This is out of respect for the validity of your first baptism, whichever group of Christians did it. (Some Christians don’t think baptizing babies and kids too young to profess their faith counts. They are called, ironically, Baptists.) Only one baptism per person.  In a way this is too bad, because we often need a new start with God; we need that reassurance that we belong.  That we are forgiven.  That we are made new in the image of God.  

“Remember your baptism, and be glad.”  Whether or not you remember your actual baptism, rely on it. Remember who loves you.  Remember that you truly belong.


*****************
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
January 7, 2017
New Beginnings

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
            9   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Happy New Year! To start our New Year, a new gospel, the gospel of Mark.  And the very beginning of Mark is the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his ministry.  Today we are invited to experience God’s newness, leading us forward into a future of learning, and service, carrying the message of God’s love, and enjoying God’s amazing world.  Happy New Year, indeed!

I love Mark’s gospel. It was the first written collection of stories of Jesus.  Mark invented a new form of literature: a gospel. He recorded a new religion; the name of it wasn’t even fixed at that time.  Mark had learned about Jesus by word of mouth, probably from people who had seen him in the flesh, and who had encountered the risen Christ in power. Mark in turn experienced that transforming power as their stories came alive for him. Mark was no academic, but he knew how to tell a story in its bare bones essence.  He wanted to make sure that the stories his mentors told him were remembered, and preserved, so that people removed in time and space could encounter that risen Christ in power for ourselves.

Power is key in the Gospel of Mark.  For Mark, Jesus has a kind of power that makes things happen.  Healings.  Exorcisms. Revealing the true nature of things, exposing the powers and principalities and the rot behind the political and social structures of his day.  In the coming months we will unpack this kind of power and what it might look like for us today.  

According to Mark’s story, Jesus’ power was first revealed at his baptism.  The veil between heaven and earth was ripped apart, and the spirit of God escaped from heaven and landed on Jesus. He was claimed as God’s special son, and then his work among us began.

Some impressive baptism that was.  But were people even aware of the amazing new thing that was happening with Jesus in the Jordan?  Who knew at the time?  Maybe only Jesus.  The text says:…just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw…  Did anyone else see?  Did even John the Baptist know what was happening?  Was it just a vision that Jesus saw?  Was that enough to change the course of his life from carpenter to messiah? 

Which begs the question, what does God need to do to get through to us, today?  Have you ever wanted a neon sign from God?  Something that you don’t have to decode, not have to guess which part is your own insight, which part is divine, and which part is your guilty conscience?  Well, there are sacraments.  In our Protestant tradition, we have two: baptism and communion.  Sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible gift of God.”  Things we can experience with our senses to represent what is going on at a level we cannot reliably sense.  And the gift of baptism is: You belong. You belong to God’s family through the power of Jesus.  You are forgiven.  You are made new in the image of God. Rely on it.

Unlike communion, baptism is something we preachers are only supposed to serve up to you once.  This is out of respect for the validity of your first baptism, whichever group of Christians did it. (Some Christians don’t think baptizing babies and kids too young to profess their faith counts. They are called, ironically, Baptists.) Only one baptism per person.  In a way this is too bad, because we often need a new start with God; we need that reassurance that we belong.  That we are forgiven.  That we are made new in the image of God. 

“Remember your baptism, and be glad.”  Whether or not you remember your actual baptism, rely on it. Remember who loves you.  Remember that you truly belong.

When Jesus was baptized, he was getting a ritual that John the Baptist had created, of submersion in the Jordan river for forgiveness and renewal, maybe a little political protest too, but Jesus got something else besides:  the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit. In this story it was seen “like a dove.”  Whether this was seen by anybody else but Jesus, this receiving of the Holy Spirit to make baptism complete had become part of the baptism ritual already by the time of Paul.  A Christian baptism is water and Spirit: it is not a Christian baptism unless the Holy Spirit is a part of it.  The apostle Paul has to clean up several baptisms in Acts of the Apostles.  He delivered the Holy Spirit to new Christians by laying on hands (chapters 8 and 19).  Now you know and I know that the Holy Spirit does not need a pair of hands to reach you.  But how cool is it that faithful people have been carrying forth the power of God from one person to another for thousands of years through the ritual of laying on hands, in baptism, in Confirmation, and in ordination, and in everyday life? 

God makes us new each day.  Yet so much of God’s work is invisible.   Here is another way besides baptism to make it visible: by our hands, deliberately as carriers of that Spirit that loves us no matter what.  We can be that for each other, with a “peace be with you,” a handclasp, a respectful hug, an arm on the shoulder, or a full throttle laying on of hands. The Spirit blows where it will, but we can also deliberately share it with one another. God is everywhere, but in the church community, we can know it, and share it, in this simple touch of loving hands.


I have worked my way through close to forty listening interviews with members of this church.  I am privileged to know some of the things you value.  As I have listened, I am very aware that this is a season of loss for our church, and for many of your families too.  Losing a beloved pastor who has seen you through so much of life is a big loss.  Some pillars of the church have moved away, and other pillars of the church, have died and gone home to God.  So much loss. We each face that loss in our own way.  

And in the emptiness that we are left with, God is at work creating something new.  We are not alone.  The book of Hebrews talks of a great cloud of witnesses.  Those whose hands showed God to us. Who loved us, and taught us, and showed us how to do this crazy thing we call church. A great cloud of witnesses, no longer here in the flesh, but still supporting us. From my churches, I especially remember Katherine, who showed me how a woman could be a pastor. Dave, whose quiet faithfulness and hard work taught me the bible cover to cover.  Marion, who said: Pastor, I’m praying for you every day.  Beth, who at 99 years old, took church attendance and kept track of every visitor.  Take a minute and reflect on who is in your cloud of witnesses, no longer here in the flesh, but still supporting your faith.

 God doesn’t create out of nothing. Out of our past relationships and our broken hearts, in love with those saints who have gone before us, God is creating a faithful future for us, and for this church.  We might become those caring hands for someone new who walks through our door.  We might be that carrier sof God’s Spirit to a person who needs to know that they belong, they are forgiven, that they can be accepted exactly as they are.  We are probably not ready to fill the shoes of those who go before us with God, but that’s OK.  It’s good to have a challenge.  And we’re not doing it alone!


Has anybody been making New Years resolutions?  Somebody’s making resolutions: I know because the yoga studio was cram-packed when I went last week.

I love that resolutions work for some people.  For myself, I find a different process seems to work more reliably: paying attention to what God is making new in my life.  Then just going with the flow, following that energy, that Spirit gift, and trying to let it fully into my life.  Following through is not always my strong suit; I can’t make things happen.  Instead, I try to keep finding the flow, the life-giving rhythm that God is providing, and stepping into it, and letting it wash over me, and letting it support me.  So I’m not trying to remake myself.  We are being remade.  We are showing up, and being willing to be remade.

So every morning (well, most mornings) I offer myself to that flow, hoping to be remade into the things God is nudging me to become.  And every afternoon, I have forgotten a good part of my good intentions, but God is forgiving, and that flow of Spirit is still there, that cloud of witnesses is still there, and every time I remember to pause and listen and feel it, I am made new.


I suspect this church is ready for new beginnings, and I hope you will be a part of it. Details to follow after the next Council meeting. There is no magic formula for a church to thrive.  I have some ideas of what we can do.  But the most important thing we can do is accept the gift that those before us have given to us, the gift of God’s Spirit made known in the caring hands of faithful people, and then we do our best to carry it forward, in ways that bring us love and joy.  Through the water of baptism, through the bread and cup of communion, we carry God’s spirit. In celebration and mourning, in prayer and song, in parties and works of mercy and works of justice, we carry God’s spirit to hurting world. We are the church, created in water and Spirit.  We belong.  We are forgiven.  And, surrounded by those who love us, in this world and the next, we are made Christ’s new creation.  I can’t wait to see how we grow!  Amen.