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What is the Gospel?

Jason Micheli —  June 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

13507008_887704071358691_3074117591234776256_n This week, a group of about 45 of us are continuing our mission partnership with the community members at Ft Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Here’s one of my reflections from our evening worship.

A few springs ago, I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.”

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me. But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus? Or the message of Jesus?

Christians often are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

  • All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 
  • Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 
  • Strangers and Enemies would be seen to share in God’s promise and blessing. 
  • All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 
  • All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

As you engage in mission this week, it’s critical you not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

   rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x68311111.jpg13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.

And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.

One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.

For a moment or two, I ate alone.

Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.

I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.

He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’

‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.

There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.

‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.

‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.

After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’

He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.

‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.

He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’

‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’

‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’

‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’

‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.

‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.

‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.

‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’

He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.

‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.

I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’

He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.

That past July

Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.

Wayne had cancer that summer.

I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.

A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.

Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.

After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.

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When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.

     ‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.

‘How are you?’ I asked him.

No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’

It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.

But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.

Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:

‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’

I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:

‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’

Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.

‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’

And he pointed to his head and his heart.

‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.

‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.

‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.

And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’

Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’ 

     As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.

They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.

They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.

This preacher’s congregation-

they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.

So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.

The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.

The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.

But then-

Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.

The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:

‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’ 

     And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.

After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.

Before cancer.

But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:

‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’

     The preacher preaches.

Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:

     ‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’ 

     That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’

Hypostasis.

It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.

Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’

     In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’

Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’  An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.

To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.

Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.

     Faith makes our hope real.

So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.

     Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either. 

The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.

I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.

Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.

Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.

Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.

Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.

Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.

It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.

Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.

While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.

‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).

‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’

‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.

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Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:

“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.

Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”

Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.

And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.

Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.

     What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.

That is-

Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.

But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.

In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:

The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.

Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.

 Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:

Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.

It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.

To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.

So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?

What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?

People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.

Here it is:

Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.

They’re about protesting it.

Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of the God’s world.

Portrait Karl Barth

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’ 

We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’ 

Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’ 

 So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.

Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is to against God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.

     Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt or, sometimes even- maybe at our best times, despair.

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2 I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

Here it is:

Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’

It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.

     Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.

So…

 

Once upon a time-

In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.

Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.

They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.

As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.

Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.

Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.

In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.

And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.

Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.

Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.

As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.

Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:

When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.

And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.

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When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.

A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.

Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’

New packaging.

Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.

Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.

Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?

Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.

As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.

 

After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.

As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)

It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.

As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.

Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.

She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.

Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the  pictures of their houses?

So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!

And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.

     Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.

And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.

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The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.

Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.

This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.

It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.

Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?

Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’

As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.

While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?

It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.

Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.

He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.

If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.

Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.

 

At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.

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His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.

She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.

And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.

A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.

But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?

What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.

A fact that always made her feel blessed.

She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.

Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.

     How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?

Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.

It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?

It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.

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That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…

But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.

As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.

It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.

Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.

His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.

They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.

We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.

They don’t have it to give. We do.

Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.

I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.

Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.

I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.

 

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

IMG_2133Today is World Toilet Day, a globally recognized occasion to direct the attention of pampered, fat-a#$#@ like you and me to the lack of sanitation in the developing world.

Not only is not having a pot to p@## in a lack of dignity even America’s poorest can’t imagine, lack of sanitation brings with it systemic health and socio-economic effects.

World Toilet Day has been celebrated by the UN, NGO’s and the philanthropic community since 2001 with a campaign that- I’m quoting here- ‘mixes humor with serious facts to help people resonate with a problem most otherwise ignore.’

Ignore.

Because from a fundraiser’s perspective, toilets aren’t as sexy as a kid with flies in his eyes or buying a playground for him.

And from a funder’s perspective toilets are just, well, ICK.

I know today, November 19, is World Toilet Day.

I’m just surprised- cr!% in my pants shocked- that UMCOR knows its World Toilet Day.

That’s UMCOR as in United Methodist Committee on Relief, the social service arm of the United Methodist Church, the mainoldline denomination in which I toil for love of Jesus.

For the past 30 months, I, and many of my congregants, have literally worked like c@#$ to raise the money and provide much of the hands-on labor to install one complete sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama, Guatemala.

We did so primarily because the leaders of the community themselves identified sanitation as the number one transformative step we could help them take towards an empowered future.

We did so also because 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to sanitation.

Not only does that lead to a 9/11 everyday of bacteria-related fatalities, it’s the main obstacle to girls staying in school once they hit puberty (think about it).

Probably, you DO have to think about it because YOU DON’T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT TAKING A S#$% any day much less everyday.

Toilets are something we take for granted which means it’s not easy to raise money or awareness about someone else’s need for them.

Not to mention a giant Victorian taboo about talking about s#$% stands in the way.

Over the past 2 years we’ve raised over $100,000 off-budget. We’ve also sent more volunteers to help install the sanitation system than most Methodist churches have in worship on a Sunday.

We did so through…drumroll…’mixing humor with serious facts.’

A series of short videos of a guy in a collar (me~ fully clothed) on or near one of my church’s 37(!!) toilets. In each video I tried to playfully point out that getting upset about taboos like talking about doodie in church is pretty unJesusy when he died naked and most of the people he claims to prefer literally live in, play in and eat food washed in doodie every day.

I was told by the denominational powers-that-be that the word ‘toilet’ is inappropriate in church and in church communications. If you want more of that story please call (703) 768-1114.

Truth be told, the broohaha probably helped us raise more money and I was fine with that until I got this email last week from UMCOR, one of the agencies of the denominational powers-that-be.

Telling me today is World Toilet Day and asking me- I s@#$ you not- to learn more by watching a video.

Of a church employee (a pastor?).

At a toilet.

Talking about the importance of toilets.

Even if we think it’s impolite to talk about.

Toilets.

I don’t think I’m being vain by pointing out the similarities (i.e., stealing) in approach. This UMCOR video is the Gary Busey to my Nick Nolte, the Rutger Hauer to my Anthony Hopkins, or even if it’s the reverse the resemblance is there.

I like to think of myself as a trend-setter, but even I can’t make ‘toilet’ an appropriate word in church if it truly is/was a vulgar, ‘grievous’ offense. Anyways, all the crap was worth it because come January, when our mission team arrives, the project will be complete and we’ll be just an inch closer to new creation.

Since it’s World Toilet Day, why not give to Aldersgate’s Guatemala Toilet Project here. Every wee little bit helps, so do you doodie.

And to celebrate Word Toilet Day, here’s a never-published and not-so-amazing (I was told to delete all the old ones) video my kid did for the project in ’13.

 

IMG_3916-768x1024Here’s a homily written by friend, congregant and seminary student Jimmy Owsley (above…no that’s not me). He wrote this sermon for our evening worship in Guatemala during our mission there in July.

His text was Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3- ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

 

What do you think it means to be poor in spirit?

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 5, “To be poor in spirit is to be contentedly poor, willing to be emptied of worldly wealth.”

Putting it another way “The poor in spirit have accepted the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that they may follow Christ,” says German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’d like to start this sermon off with the premise that he Sermon on the Mount demands our whole allegiance. If Scripture is our authority then we don’t get to pick and choose which verses we want to follow and which ones we don’t. And this is one of the most comprehensive segments Jesus’ teaching that we have available.

Furthermore, when Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount, he is not speaking of merely spiritual realities. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven, he speaks of a present physical kingdom, the kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament which the Messiah was to bring about. This is why the early Christians could say “Jesus is Lord” in direct contradiction to “Caesar is Lord.” It was kind of a big deal. In orthodox Christian belief, this kingdom an already-but not yet reality that Christian are called to live into. This is a paradigm in which the realities of heaven and earth collide.

So when Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, he is not saying that they will be blessed in spirit sometime later, such as when they die. And he’s not saying that being poor in spirit has nothing to do with earthly wealth. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” he says.

Rather, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who would renounce all earthly gains. This is why Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

And when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is saying those who are poor in spirit are blessed now, in this life. They are the partakers of the kingdom of Heaven. Those who have emptied themselves, who seek not their own gain but live according to the principles of the kingdom of God, that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” these people have God’s peace in their hearts. For these are the ones who, as Jesus says elsewhere, have lost their life that they may find it. How contrary to our “American Dream”?

So he says do not store up treasures on earth, but rather store up treasures in heaven. In other words store up treasures based on the principles of God’s kingdom, where poverty, simplicity, justice, meekness, and mercy are valued. Leave behind the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Indeed, every earthly gain can be lost. But it is our relationships with others, established through loving service of God and neighbor, which are the stuff of heaven. Only our relationships with God and with neighbor can bring us the overwhelming peace that comes with the kingdom of God. This kind of peace requires renouncing the false securities that this world has to offer: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety,” says Bonhoeffer “For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe.”

If you are poor in spirit, if you sacrifice your own wealth and aspirations and live on mission for God in this world as you are meant to do, “Seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness,” God will take care of you, Jesus says. But if you strive first and foremost for your own security, then your heart is not with him in his kingdom for “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“For this reason” Jesus says “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on…” And of course, all of us doubt this. How can we not worry about providing for ourselves? And even for our families?

But Jesus anticipates this. “O you of little faith,” he replies. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?

So what would it mean to live at peace? To follow Jesus commands not to worry? To not be pursuing that next highest paying job, a successful career, or that dream of more comfortable house? What would it mean to live wholeheartedly for the purposes of God, relying on each other and trusting that, if we live according to principles of His kingdom which are vastly different and most often contradictory the principles of our earthly kingdoms, that if we trust and follow God will provide?

This week we all will experience God’s kingdom in some way. I trust that you are here, not to check off a box or fill in that volunteer line on your resumes. You are here in good faith because you feel some calling to serve God by serving your neighbor. You feel the pull to live out your faith, and you have renounced a chunk of your valuable time and resources to be here this week.

This may feel like a mountaintop experience for some of you, or a break from reality in some way. And it is a break from our normal everyday American reality. You might wonder how to live so simply and meaningfully in your everyday life when you return.

I encourage you to soak in the principles of the Sermon on the Mount this week, and to fully enjoy the extent to which you will be able to give of yourself. Please also be thinking about ways in which you might reorient you everyday life around these principles. What would it be like to really live according to the beatitudes day in and day out?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

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Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
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Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug 🙁

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The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

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Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

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Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

394705_268204743284233_733312341_nIt’s not uncommon for parents to send their youth on mission trips hoping the experience will impart some life-lesson in gratitude.

Parents often send their youth to places like Guatemala, hoping their son or daughter will return home feeling fortunate for the ‘blessings’ they have in their own life. Parents’ motivation for funding a mission trip frequently isn’t religious at all; they just want their kids to come home realizing they shouldn’t complain about what model Xbox they have because at least they have shelter, food and water.

I don’t doubt that when my boys are teenagers and themselves being consumed by materialism I’ll have those same motivations in shipping them off to some desperate, developing nation.

At the same time, the motivation to ‘teach our kids how fortunate they are’ has always rubbed me the wrong way.

After all, aren’t we essentially using someone’s poor kid to teach our rich kid a lesson?

That’s not mission; it’s not service. That’s, really, just another form of consumerism.

We’re sending them off to a place of poverty because there’s nothing we can buy in the store that will teach them that particular lesson.

Here’s what else I think and I only realize this because I didn’t send my kids off on a mission trip I happen to be here in Guatemala with them:

When we want our kids to come away from mission feeling fortunate for what they have, we tip our hats to the fact that having is really what’s important to us.

Seeing this place through Gabriel’s and Alexander’s eyes has taught me an important lesson. The poor, indigenous Mayans with whom we’ll serve this week- they don’t know they’re ‘poor.’ They don’t think of themselves as poor.

And neither does Gabriel. Nor does Alexander

They’re just people to them. 541013_10200197862772183_68837880_n

Seeing this place through their eyes has shows me how poverty is a category we impose on them because we’ve allowed materialism to call the shots in how we define ‘riches’ or ‘happiness.’

Gabriel and Alexander don’t notice that none of these kids have a Wii and they don’t feel badly that they don’t.

They don’t show compassion to them because it doesn’t occur to him that they should be pitied.

Instead Gabriel has been perfectly content to play in the dirt, broken bits of plastic making just as good an Ironman toy as a $10 one from Target. Their homes are just their homes, that their floor is mud and ours hardwood is of no consequence to him.

Parents often want their kids to return from a place like Guatemala realizing that they should be content with what they have. I’ve never heard a parent say they want their child to return realizing that a full, rich life can be had apart from having.

But it can be. That’s what my boys teach me here, and it’s taught me that until you’re hit with this realization you can never see ‘poor‘ people as…people.

And if you can’t see them as people your act of charity isn’t Christian precisely because it’s neither relational nor incarnational.

I’ve been coming to Guatemala for over a decade to do projects like these for people like this but, seeing them through Gabriel’s eyes, it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time.

‘Inodoro’ is Spanish for…find out for yourself.

My friends Ben and Lupe at Highland Support Project did me a huge, inconvenient favor by putting together this video from Chuicutama, Guatemala.

Take a look at the situation in the village and how we’re empowering and partnering with the members of the community to change their lives in an urgent and needful way.

After you’re done watching, click here and give us your money.

Give till it hurts. It’s Lent after all. ‘Tis the season of suffering and sacrifice.

 

 

JanetThe overlap between art and faith coincides at a number of points.

Both rely upon tradition and discipline to think about the things which matter.

Both use symbolics to make a prophetic point about the world as it is beneath our pretensions.

In both art and faith, the debate between what is sacred (or just appropriate) and profane is continuous.

In fact, I would argue the ongoing power and relevance of both art and faith is due to their ability to blur the line of convention and provoke just such a conversation.

Recently, some have raised the question of the appropriateness of the word ‘toilet’ in a sacred setting.

Is the word itself profane?

Or does context- how and to what end it’s used, say raising money for an indigenous community- determine it’s propriety?

Can an ordinarily ‘profane’ word become ‘sacred?’

Janet Laisch, an art historian and church member, picks it up from here.
Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968il_340x270.545836925_2ejm

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1964 above is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) as a replacement for his original from 1917. After his brother’s death during WWI, Duchamp moved from Paris to NYC and helped form the Society of Independent Artists as a way for emerging artists to exhibit their work without censor. In preparation for the first show, Duchamp purchased a mass produced plumbing object from the Mott Hardware store, signed it using his alter ego R. Mutt short for Richard Mutt and dated it 1917.  Duchamp categorized this entry as sculpture and paid the required $6 fee only to have it rejected and “lost” or destroyed. The controversy that ensued became part of the object’s meaning and eventually the impetus for Duchamp to recreate it and have it displayed permanently at the SF MOMA.

The following is a direct quote from a 1917 periodical: “The Richard Mutt Case,” from The Blind Man, May 1917:

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“They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.” Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain.

Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited. What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:

 1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.

 2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”

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Creating art during WWI when most objects were mass produced and easily replaceable, Duchamp asked: should art still be hand-made, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, unique?

Should art be visually pleasing?

Must art require impressive technical skill?

What is art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Through the use of only minimally manipulated mundane ready-made objects, Duchamp sought to move away from the established definition that art should showcase the visual and technical skill of the artist and instead made art about a concept. The idea the object conveys is the more permanent nature of the art(ifact) as long as it has a vehicle for communicating its message. The object itself will eventually disappear much like Duchamp felt after his own brother’s death during WWI.

The idea once created remains a part of history as long as it is remembered either by creating a replacement or by communicating about it. For this work, Duchamp chose the plumbing object, displayed it at 90 degrees and signed it in black and called it sculpture.  Applying a title not associated with its original use may change it very drastically.

The very title—Fountain—transforms the way I view this ready-made object.

Duchamp wanted people to reconsider it– that is why he provided it with a new name. He wants us to free associate using the plumbing object and title to form new ideas and think about society in a new way.

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For example, we find it absurd to drink water from Duchamp’s Fountain or vile and revolting.

Hopefully we are angry enough that we don’t want anyone to drink non potable water.

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It is a loaded image because it reminds me of really vile behavior and oppression when different standards were not recognized as evil.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

We don’t have to agree that this object is art or that Duchamp is brilliant.

I hope we can agree that these people are beautiful, one-of-a kind, unique, and irreplaceable.

When it comes to ‘toilets’ and getting toilets and clean water to children like these, the question is not between the sacred and profane.

It’s a question of what is holy.

To give to the Guatemala Toilet Project, click here.

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Here’s the latest- flu bug- installment for the Guatemala Toilet Project.

You can do your doodie by giving today. Every a wee little bit helps.

So much of what I do as a pastor is ephemeral.

It’s hard to step away from the pulpit and know if a sermon will survive any longer than the moment that’s just passed. It’s difficult to sit by a hospital bed and discern if you’ve been anything more than simply kind, if you’ve been helpful. Or true. I do believe in measuring. I believe numbers matter because people matter to God, but I also know that in ministry there are not as many quantifiables as some would like to pretend. Still fewer are the tangible outcomes produced by ministry.

One of them, however, is the mission work made possible in part by my congregation, and thus in part, by me.

I hope it sounds neither sentimental nor self-interested that I find a great sense of fulfillment in knowing that I had a small role to play in the Community/Clinic getting built in Chikisis, Guatemala over 2012-2013.

Not only will the center house service teams in a region of the Highlands otherwise too remote to help, it will serve as a gathering spot of indigenous women in the region to receive medical training and o

ther empowerment skills.

Here are some photos taken by our most recent team of the center as well as some photos of digging the central sewage lines for the community- part of our larger Guatemala Toilet Project in Chikisis.

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DESIGNIt seems the people of scripture are forever journeying to Bethlehem.

Jacob, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah and David.

I invite you to prepare for Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem by recalling the Old Testament characters whose journeys intersected in Bethlehem. Click here to download the ebook.

Proceeds (if there are any) will go to Highland Support Project, our partner organization working to empower indigenous Mayan communities in the Highlands of Guatemala.

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Your Salvation is Impossible

Jason Micheli —  November 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

camel-needle-surrealHere’s this weekend’s sermon on the rich (young) man.

You can listen to here, on the sidebar or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. Your Salvation is Impossible

Mark 10.17-27

I originally tried to get an actual, live camel here for this weekend. As it turns out that would’ve been obscenely expensive, which Dennis thought would’ve been too ironic given this month’s focus on simplicity.

So I don’t have a live camel, but I thought I could approximate one to help us visualize the story. I need a few volunteers.

According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the one-humped dromedary camel is about 7 1/4 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its hump, and about 10 feet long from nose to tail.

In his day and in his part of the world, the camel was the largest animal Jesus could’ve have conceived. Just just hold those dimensions in your mind.

In Mark 10, Jesus and the disciples are a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Jesus has just taught that if anyone wants to enter the Kingdom of God they’ll have to approach the Kingdom as children, as having nothing, as children have nothing.

No sooner are his words out of his mouth than someone with everything approaches Jesus. A rich man. You don’t have everything you want without knowing how to get anything you want. So the rich man tries his hand at flattery: ‘Good Teacher’ he calls Jesus.

And then he asks him a rich man’s kind of question. With everything in this life taken care of- no worries- the rich man asks what he has to do to inherit the next one.

Jesus doesn’t return the rich man’s flattery and responds disinterestedly by giving him the most ordinary answer imaginable.

He recites the 10 Commandments.

But the rich man waves him off: I’ve already done all that. I’m a good person. I’m religious. I don’t lie. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t stolen from my neighbors.

You’re still missing one thing, Jesus says.

Go.

Liquidate your 401K. Empty your savings. Put the house on the market. Trade in the car. Sell the season tickets. Forget the beach vacation. Cancel your membership at the club. Everything. Give the cash to the poor.

And then come follow me.

And the rich man says: ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. What do you know? You’re just some homeless guy.’

Then Jesus looks at this one rich man and makes a sweeping generalization about all rich people:

 their salvation is impossible.

This same Jesus who promised paradise to the thief

This same Jesus who refused to condemn the adulteress

This same Jesus who compared himself to a shepherd who will go out of his way searching for a single lost lamp

This same Jesus who said God’s love was like an old lady who turned her house upside down looking for a dime

This same Jesus says salvation is impossible for the rich.

The disciples, who’ve grown up believing that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, they ask Jesus: what do you mean it’s impossible?

I mean, it’s about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded 7 x 10 foot camel through the eye of a needle.

Jesus says.

Or, as we might say today, when it comes to heaven the rich have a snowball’s chance in hell.

I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Just kidding.

Actually, the story’s maybe not as bad as it sounds.

As the ancient Church Father, Origen, pointed out, the Aramaic word for camel (kamelon) is almost identical to the Aramaic word for nautical cable (kamilon).

It’s just 1 letter difference. It could be as simple as a copyist’s error.

So when Jesus says ‘impossible’ he doesn’t mean camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle impossible.

He instead means that the rich getting into heaven is more like threading a mariner’s rope through the eye of a needle.

 

See, that’s more comforting right? Not really?

If nothing else, we can seek solace in the fact that Jesus didn’t say this to everyone.

Jesus didn’t tell his 12 disciples to sell everything and give it to the poor. Sure they dropped fishing nets and left boats behind in the water and walked away from homes and, presumably, families inside them.

But Jesus didn’t tell them they had to or heaven was null and void.

And when a lawyer- who definitely wasn’t poor- asks Jesus this very same question about eternal life, the lawyer doesn’t get an impossible image of a camel squeezing through a needle.

He gets a story about a Good Samaritan.

And the woman at the well, when she asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell her ‘Go and give away everything for the poor.’

Jesus tells her ‘Go and sin no more.’

So before you get all worked up about this Gospel passage, just remember that Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. Jesus doesn’t pull the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle comparison for everyone. He doesn’t say salvation is impossible for everyone.

He just says it to the rich, about the rich.

So as long as we’re not rich, we’re in the clear.

We can love our neighbor as ourself. We can go and sin no more.

We don’t have to worry that our salvation is impossible.

But how do you know?

If you’re rich?

After all, rich people are notoriously adept at deluding themselves.

In study after study, sociologists have shown how rich people seldom think of themselves as rich. Hardly ever.

It’s always the person above them, in front of them, who has and makes more who’s wealthy. Not them.

Rich people rarely think of themselves as rich.

Even if we were rich, chances are we wouldn’t think we were. So how do you know?

A few years ago, Money Magazine surveyed its readers and asked them how much they would need in liquid assets to consider themselves wealthy.

Guess how much? 5 million dollars.

That seems a little high to me.

But here’s the thing-

When it comes to wealth, we don’t need to agree on tax brackets or net worth.

We don’t need to debate exact amounts or dollar figures because we can easily identify a rich based on some very specific behaviors.

Some ‘you might be a rich person if’ behaviors.

Because rich people have so much money they do some crazy, strange things that are easy to point out.

For example, one of the things rich people do is called ‘upgrade.’

Maybe you’ve read about it. It’s when a rich person has something that works, perfectly, and then they go out and get another just like it, only a litter newer.

And then they have 2.

Strange right?

Like I said, we don’t have to agree on net worth because we can I.D. rich people by the crazy things they do they have so much money.

Don’t believe me?

Listen to this:

Rich people will go into a kitchen, a kitchen with countertops, a microwave and an oven, and guess what they’ll do

They’ll rip it all out.

And then…they’ll replace it.

With countertops, a microwave and an oven.

You’re smiling because it’s crazy right?

That’s why we don’t need to agree on how much money makes a person rich because we can identify a rich person based on what they do.

Some rich people I know, they’ll go to the mall and they’ll wait in line outside the Apple Store, and let me tell you rich people hate waiting in line.

But they’ll wait in line at the Apple Store for an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours. And while they wait, they’ll pull out their iPhone and they’ll post on Facebook: ‘At the Apple Store, waiting to get my new iPhone.’

Rich people do such strange things they make themselves obvious.

Something else rich people do- maybe you’ve heard about this before.

They’ll open up a refrigerator filled with food, and they’ll look inside and then they’ll say the craziest thing: ‘There’s nothing to eat.’

It’s true.

I know rich people who will do the same thing in front of their closet.

They’ll stand in front of a closet full of clothes and they’ll say: ‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’

And the truth is, they’ve got work clothes, workout clothes, afterwork clothes and work in the yard clothes.

It’s ridiculous I know.

Don’t say anything, but I know this one rich woman. She’s got like 13, 14 pairs of shoes and she’s always on the lookout for another.

What could you possible do with 14 pairs of shoes? That’s like half of February.

You see, we don’t need to peek inside a person’s portfolio to know if they’re rich. Their behaviors are so easy to spot.

For example-

Rich people have so much stuff they’ll gather up stuff they don’t use- it all works fine- and they’ll give it away.

They’ll give it away.

And then, they’ll feel good about themselves for giving away stuff they don’t need in order to create more space in their house so they can go get more stuff.

I’m telling you, rich people do the craziest things.

But it’s not just the crazy things that make a rich person easy to identify.

How many of you know someone who owns a car? Any kind of car?

Only 8% of the world has a car. 92% of the people in the world would look at that person with the car and think ‘rich.’

How many of you know someone who has some way to drink a glass of clean water?

Because 1 billion people in the world would look at that glass of water like it was gold and lick their lips and think ‘rich.’

How much change do you have on you? Right now in your pockets?

Over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I won’t tell the IRS but congratulations, you’re rich.

How many of you know someone who will eat something today?

Because half a billion kids won’t.

This girl on the back of your bulletin. 

I’ve been to her home at least 3 times. Fact is, I can tell you for sure that my garbage disposal eats better than she does.

I’m rich.

When surveyed, the readers of Money Magazine said they’d need 5 million dollars in liquid to consider themselves rich.

 

The truth is- if you have a combined household income of $45,000 you’re in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.

You’re rich.

And I know, the way wealth works, you probably don’t think of yourself as rich.

I know, most of you, in this part of the world, in our part of the world, you’re not considered rich. But don’t forget Jesus was a homeless dude and probably wouldn’t find that a very persuasive argument.

It’s a dangerous thing when we think our world is the world.

It’s dangerous because we might read right on past a passage like today’s and not even realize that Jesus just said our salvation is impossible.

 

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The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answers by reciting the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet or cheat or dishonor.

But notice.

Jesus doesn’t rattle off all 10 of the Commandments.

Jesus leaves off the first 2, the 2 most important ones, the 2 of which the other 8 are only subsets:

I am the Lord your God.

You shall worship no other gods but God.

‘I’ve done all that; I’ve kept those commandments’ the rich man says.

 

And Jesus parries:

There is one more thing- what about the first 2 commandments? How are you with those?

Only Jesus doesn’t phrase it that way.

 

He asks it in an object lesson instead.

Go sell all your stuff. Put it on Ebay and Craigslist. Auction it off.

Take the money- I don’t want your money- give it to the poor.

Get rid of everything you have so that you just have me.

Get rid of all you treasure and you can have me, your homeless God, as your greatest treasure.

 

How does that sound?

Mark says the rich man walked away, ‘grieving.’

And that word in Greek (aganakteo) it’s the same exact word that Mark uses to describe another rich, young ruler in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he gives everything away, when Jesus weeps and sweats blood because he’s losing the most precious thing he has: the presence of God the Father.

Mark says the rich man ‘grieves’ thinking about losing his god.

As the rich man walks away, Jesus says ‘Huh, rich people…their salvation is impossible.’

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I know enough rich people to know that that rich man- he probably heard that as bad news.

It just goes to show how money can make it hard to hear the Gospel.

Because it’s not bad news.

It’s not.

Let’s be honest, rich people like us- we’re such sinners. Our hearts have so many idols, money is only the primary one. Our values and priorities are so compromised . We’ve hurt so many people in our lives and messed up our own lives in so many ways.

It would take a completely impossible miracle to save rich people like us.

I mean, it would be as likely as a rich man willing making himself poor. Not going to happen.

Our salvation is as unlikely as a King stepping down off his throne to become a slave. What are the odds?

It would be like someone paying an incredible debt that someone else racked up. There comes a price point where no one would ever do that.

It would like an innocent man laying down his life not for his friends or his family or his country but for a guilty man. What are the chances of that happening?

Our salvation IS an impossibility!

It’s like hell freezing over. It’s like pigs flying.

It’s like a dead man coming back from the grave.

It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.

Thanks be to God.

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The only people who are saved are the ones who realize that their salvation is an impossible miracle.

An act of God.

A gift I don’t deserve and could never purchase.

Something that was bought at great cost but has been freely given…to me.

Once that Gospel transforms your heart, once it becomes your treasure, once it becomes the most precious identity-forming thing in your life, it changes everything.

Once the Gospel transforms your heart, you realize that asking the question ‘How much do I have to give?’ or ‘What percentage do I have to give?’ misses the point completely.

Because it’s not about obligation.

You should want to give all that you can because Jesus Christ gave it all away for you.

Even putting the question that way: ‘How much do I have to give?’ is a good indication that you haven’t experienced the Gospel yet.

You might be a religious person; you’re just not a Christian.

That’s why, for example, it never works out when people say ‘I’ll give more once I make this much money, once I’m at this stage in my career, once the kids are gone, once this bill is paid off.’

Odds are, you won’t.

Because it’s not a money issue. It’s a God issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

Statistically, the more money a person makes the less they give as a percentage of their income.

Because the more stuff you have, one, single gift doesn’t seem quite as important does it? The more provisions you have, the less you need a Provider.

It’s not a money issue. It’s a Gospel issue.

It’s not about asking how much you have to give.

It’s about having your attitude about money- and everything else- shaped by the Cross.

It’s not about percentages or pocket change.

It’s about giving and living sacrificially.

And by definition, giving and living sacrificially means it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It’s costs something. It’s not easy. It strains you.

Look, full disclosure: you pay my salary.

So if you want to chalk this up to a self-serving, fundraising sermon, fine.

Don’t give your money to the Church.

Give it to Lupe to use in Guatemala.

But give until it hurts.

Give until it hurts because it’s NOT ABOUT MONEY.

Jesus didn’t want the rich man’s money, and God doesn’t want yours.

God wants your heart. He already paid a lot for it.

God wants your heart.

And God wants your heart to be shaped like his.

And if the preaching of Jesus, again and again and again, is any indication:

 

Nothing competes more for your heart than money.

 

Nothing competes more for your love of Christ than the pursuit and management of wealth.

 

Nothing works against you following Christ fully, you maturing in your faith, you surrendering everything you are to Christ, you making yourself available to Christ’s call upon your life- nothing works against you following Christ more than the pursuit and management of a lifestyle.

Nothing competes more for our hearts than money.

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So it’s always good to find out where our heart is, whose our heart is.

 

Now I’m not going to test you like Jesus did and challenge you to sell everything you got and give it away.

 

Because actually, you can find out where your heart is without all that trouble.

You just have to think about this one question and answer to yourself honestly.

Here goes:

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear:

There is no God. Your sins haven’t been forgiven, but that’s okay because there is no heaven and after you die you won’t be with God or any of your loved ones.

Or

You have no money.

Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear: there is no God or you have no money?

Where your answer is, there lies your heart.

 

 

 

 

 

* ‘rich’ anecdotes and closing question owed to Andy Stanley.

9The women of Pixan are Mayan women from the Highlands of Guatemala being trained by Highland Support Project to to compete in the global marketplace.

These are the same women helped and empowered through our other projects such as stove-building, women’s circles and the sanitation project.

You can check out the video below and then go to their storeto purchase a life-changing project yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve got a bunch of new blog followers since we started the project so couldn’t resist posting the video again.

Anyways…

Here’s some photos of our ongoing project in Chuicutama, Guatemala. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported our work. And we invite you to continue supporting us.

Pictures in chronological order

Construction and completed pictures of phase 1 – construction of Treatment Plant

photo descriptions in order:

building forms for pouring roof of septic tankbuilding filter tank

installing man hole in street

connecting community center to system

finished filter tank, water inlet manifold, canal

treatment plant from bellow

finished man hole in street

treatment plant from above finished

good view

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_DSC0359Penelope Norton is a former youth, now friend, who interns with our partner Highland Support Project in Guatemala. This is from her blog, an important reflection on how culture objectifies women. As Penelope points out, we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think machismo attitudes don’t play themselves out in a variety of societal ways; we’re kidding ourselves too if we think our own culture is immune to such abuse.

It didn’t hurt, but I could still feel where his hand had landed harshly on my backside. For several hours after I could feel the outline of every finger not due to pain, but because of how gross I felt. Thinking back to the few moments before it had happened it all made sense. I was waiting at the only light there is on my 15 minute walk to work. When it turned green I proceeded to walk across the street and as a couple was about to cross my path I slowed down. They were looking at me for what seemed like more than the average amount of time. I only seemed to notice it looking back on the scene. As I slowed, out of my peripherals I noticed a boy oddly close to me and once I slowed he veered away from me and down the street I was crossing. A block later I heard hurried foot steps behind me and then a firm smack. I immediately wheeled around amidst a stream of curses (I’m embarrassed to say)and by the time I had made a one/eighty to face my accoster he was already scuttling away and had made it at least 5 feet. The maybe 17 year old boy in a school uniform, the same boy from the block before, was retreating as fast as he had come on.

I had known it would be coming. If I had read into the events that happened right before the slap that was heard through Xela (not really); the couple watching him follow closely behind me, me turning on him right before he had planned to slap me while I was crossing the street I would have realized it was coming. I have been here four months and I’m honestly surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. There are many American, European, and Canadian women in Xela working for non-profits or here to go to Spanish school. We stick out like soar thumbs and due to our light skin, blue eyes, and golden hair we’re targeted. We’re new, exciting, something men here don’t see everyday. We’re something to brag about, “I touched agringa‘s ass today!” I have made many girlfriends here and they all have the same story to tell, all seeming to have the same reaction, dumb-founded stairs, silence, and sometimes even tears. I had mentally prepared myself for this moment, for when it was my turn. I had decided from the beginning that I could not stare dumbly. I told myself from very early on, “Penelope, you will take every precaution to be safe here, but something like being slapped, pinched, or grabbed will happen to you. You can either let it happen or you can do something about it.” I had given myself this pep-talk every time I had heard one of my girl-friend’s most recent stories.

Within my family I am known for my “take-no-prisoners” mentality and I hope it never fades. I was mentally ready. I turned around ready to do I don’t know what, but found him already several feet away. Metal water bottle in one hand and tupperware container full of my breakfast (yogurt and fruit) in the other. With him already out of arms reach, making it unable to grab him by the collar and shake him I did all I could and chucked my breakfast at him. Store owners watching. The boy’s eyes widened and I think he was literally dumb-founded. Unfortunately missing, my rage had not given me the clarity to aim (you can be sure something I will be practicing) and the unusual weight and balance to the tupperware throwing me off. He kept retreating and I proceeded to walk after him, metal water bottle raised yelling at him the whole way till he was in full sprint and around the corner. I am sure this was not his first rodeo, but I am confident that this was the first time he had ever received this sort of reaction. Ashamed and embarrassed of what he had just done to me I went and retrieved my breakfast which had luckily not broken open, but was lying sadly in a dirty puddle.

I think about all the women that are sexually accosted on a much greater level. How, what happened to me was really just child’s play, but still made me feel disgusting and low. Why is that women are the ones that feel embarrassed after something like this happens? We did nothing wrong!

Guatemala lives under macho rule. Women don’t have much to any say, constantly belittled, daughters don’t usually receive the same treatment as sons, wives don’t find themselves partners in their marriage, but just an object conquered; expected to clean, cook, and bear children. Within this macho culture women are raised to be passive and to obey men. Women are constantly berated with more than your average cat call (a simple whistle just won’t cut it); heads hanging out of windows, targets of obscene sexual comments, and as I have experienced being touched inappropriately and without permission. This is normal. Sometimes I feel like the women have bought into it here, but really its all they know.

I only hear the stories of the other Western women that are here as I don’t have many opportunity to have these conversations with Guatemalan women. I assume that they have similar and worse stories. In reality, us “white girls” have a little protection. If a Guatemalan women is touched, raped, goes missing its rare for justice to be served. There is little weight put on their lives. Heads would role if this happened to a “white girl”. They rather not go through the trouble.

In Mayan culture God is made up of both feminine and masculine energy. When Mayan priests begin their prayers they first recognize the feminine energy, second the masculine. It was with the invasion of the Spanish and the male dominated culture they brought with them that the traditional gender role views slowly began to shift. While Mayan culture’s appreciation of both female and male energies equally remains it suffered a greater blow. Guatemala has been heavily wounded by violence. The civil war left deep scars and Guatemalan women are especially exposed. In Guatemala more women (per capita) are murdered than anywhere else in the world (2009), and the murders, the so-called “femicidios”, are characterized by raw brutality and hatred towards women. Women find themselves the punching bags to drunk, stressed, depressed men.

While the appreciation for women within Mayan culture has suffered it is still a breath of fresh air to get out of town and walk through the dirt paths of the Mayan communities.

The need for education is great. The need for a rise in women’s self-esteem is desperate. We work every day through women circle meetings to praise women. Teach them their not worthless. They are more than a body who’s soul purpose is reproduction. I am proud of our work in the communities. We have seen differences in pride and self-esteem which will in turn change the view of how things should be in the home and the rest of the community.

Things are changing, but not fast enough and not on a large enough scale. Never the less I am proud of the progress we are making.

*For family and friends that read my blog I want you to know that I am not in danger. I am extremely careful. I walk no where on my own after dark. When I notice men on the sidewalk I move to the street and visa versa. I am very aware of my surroundings. If anything this experience has strengthened my vigilance. Please do not be worried. I promise I am more than alright.

IMG_0516I spent the last week in the Highlands of Guatemala, working on a sewage system for a Maya village in the mountains. I’ve heard it before but the numbers still have the power to shock:

75% of the children in the Highlands under 7 years old are critically malnourished.

Hearing that stat my first thought, perhaps oddly, was peace.

The scriptures declare that God’s vision and promise to us is shalom, which is usually translated as “peace.”

It’s meaning, however, is much richer than what is conveyed by our English word.

Shalom means wholeness, healing, justice, and righteousness, equality, unity, freedom, and community. Shalom is a vision of all people whole, well, and one, and of all nature whole, well, and one.

According to United Methodist Bishops it is “the sum total of moral and spiritual qualities in a community whose life is in harmony with God’s good creation.” They specifically relate Jesus’ ministry to the gift of shalom and affirm, “New Testament faith presupposes a radical break between the follies, or much so-called conventional wisdom about power and security, on the one hand, and the transcendent wisdom of shalom, on the other.”

The book of Revelation imagines the completion of human history and the full realization of God’s redemptive purpose for the world in terms of “a new heaven and a new earth.” Its visionary author, John of Patmos, described when God would be with and among human beings.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ [Revelation 21:1-3].

John seems to have in mind the words of Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind… I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; …They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well…

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord [Isaiah 65: 17-25].

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nOne can only imagine how these words must sound to the millions in our world today who labor to build houses for others, but whose earnings enable them only to live in homes of scrap metal and cardboard.

Who work fields owned by others, the harvest of which is shipped to another, wealthier land while they most scavenge for food in landfills.

Whose children will die with bloated bellies before they see adulthood.

The gospel of the Kingdom of God, the gospel that proclaims the promise of shalom, is surely good news for the poor.

But what is it for us? Is it message one of woe?

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep [Luke 6:21-25].

It need not be.  Matthew 25: 31-46 is typically identified as “the judgment of the nations” or “the last judgment.” It speaks of “the Son of Man” coming in glory with the angels, sitting on his throne with all the nations gathered before him.

It is judgment because it envisions sheep being divided from goats. The sheep will go to the right, the goats to the left. To those on his right, the King says,

““Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  But those on the left: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  

And what was the difference between the sheep and the goats, those who gained entrance to the kingdom and those shut out?  Simply, their response to the poor and oppressed determined the judgment.

Of course, the judge first expressed the matter in terms of their response to his need.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   Both the saved and the damned professed ignorance.  ““Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”  

His response:

““Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Is it a mistake to suggest that our salvation hinges on our response to the crises like the aforementioned stat?

 

 

IMG_0516As you might know, I just returned from the Highlands of Guatemala, a place whose staggering beauty is rivaled only by its systemic poverty.

Making the transition back to home from a place where clean water and a flushing toilet are literally a PIPE DREAM always leaves me feeling……?

Indicted?

And why would that be?

Probably because, despite what Glenn Beck would have us think, the biblical witness is clear—from the exodus, through the Hebrew prophets, to Jesus himself—that God acts for and calls us to liberation of the oppressed.

Theologians call it God’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Meaning, God attends particularly to the plight of the poor, the most vulnerable, and exploited and expects his people to do the same. To this we might add now that effectively responding to the needs of the poor and oppressed is a moral priority for those who seek to live in faithful relation to God.

Further elaborating this point, is a piece written by Dr. Barry Penn Hollar, with whom I collaborated on a Christian Ethics book a few years ago:

The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt is central to this claim.  The exodus was and remains the fundamental, identity-shaping experience of the Jewish people.  It is the focus the Passover festival, which to this day roots Jewish identity in the experience of liberation by the almighty hand of God.  We who are Christians remember that it was in the context of the Passover festival that Jesus began the festival that is our fundamental, identity-shaping experience: the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

At the center of the Exodus memory is an insight about the very character of God: God’s compassionate sharing of the experience of oppression.  “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” God says [Exodus 3:7].   This is not a detached and disengaged awareness. Rather, God says, “I know their suffering.”  The Hebrew word “to know” is used with reference to sexual intercourse or intimacy.  It implies a sharing of the experience to which it refers. God knows and shares their suffering. Moreover, it is an awareness that leads to action.

The verse continues: “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

This portrayal of God as one who shares the suffering of the poor and oppressed and acts to deliver them is consistent throughout the Old Testament.

Amos, Isaiah, and Micah were noteworthy for their insistence that injustice and oppression was a religious issue or a matter rendering the peoples’ relationship to God faithless and their worship inauthentic.

Consider these words from Isaiah:

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow [Isaiah 1: 15-17].

And listen to Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5:21-24].

Finally, consider Micah:

 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [Micah 6:6-8]?

Let’s be honest:

Can we consider the statistics of the world’s poverty, the global reach of our national influence, the degree to which the international economy is organized for our benefit, and doubt that these words apply to us?

Is all our worship, then, no matter how sincere and doctrinally proper, a sham?

When we stand to praise God—lifting our hands and our voices in air-conditioned sanctuaries with cushioned pews, dressed in finery that has been produced by women’s hands in factories whose conditions are unknown to us—does God, in fact, despise it all?

Despise us?

However you answer, you have to at least admit: there’s sufficient cause to wonder.

 

Below are two images of the Clinic/Community Center we built in December in Chuicutama. The finishing work is set to be done once the rainy season is over. The other images show the septic system which we built last week (it’s across the street and down the hill from the Center) which will be the first building linked into the system.

You can give to this project here: Guatemala Toilet Project.

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Digging septic tank foundation. Check out the guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Putting block over rebar. Check out the guns.IMG_0538

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tying the wire onto rebar before pouring concrete forms.

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Carrying wood down for concrete forms. Check out the guns.

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What the community currently uses for toilets- pit latrines that fill into the ground and, once they’re filled, the toilet is moved to another location of their yard.IMG_0505

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pouring cement into form after 2nd level of septic tank. Check out the guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My brother-in-law, Mikey, making sure we’ve actually dug the adjoining tank foundation on the correct side.IMG_0533

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeannie mortaring. IMG_0526

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paul watching my brother-in-law do all the work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bending rebar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bending rebar. They did about a million of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leveling the corner blocks.IMG_0519

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 4- Septic Tank ready for roof/lid once it’s dry.

 

 

 

 

 

Clinic/Community Center waiting finishing.

 

 

 

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