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“Sins of the Fathers”

Message given by Pastor Bruce Ray on July 5, 2020

 

Yesterday, I received an email with the subject line: “In God we still trust: Books for the American Patriot.”  The email was from a Christian book seller promoting an Independence Day sale.

I’m a sucker for sales. I couldn’t help myself. I took the click bait to see what books were being offered. Among the titles on sale were “100 Bible Verses that Made America,” by Robert J. Morgan, and “God’s Promises for the American Patriot” by Jack Countryman. Yes. It’s his real name.  But then there was Stephen Mansfield’s book, “The Faith of Barak Obama” which was highly recommended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was tempted. After all, it was 30% off. But I resisted.

But there was another book that captured my curiosity:  “The American Patriot’s Bible: The Word of God and the Shaping of America,” on sale for $22.99 – reduced from $44.99 – a 50% savings. It was cheaper than Amazon and Barnes and Noble!  Intrigued by the savings, I investigated further.

Here’s the synopsis:

“THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

 

I wondered who could possibly see the story of the US woven into the teachings of the Bible.  The Bible was edited by Dr. Richard Lee. I “Googled” him and discovered that he was the founding pastor of a 5,000-member church in suburban Atlanta – First Redeemer Church. He recently left the church to become President of “Here’s Hope America,” an Atlanta-based broadcasting company. His biography mentioned that he is frequently called, “America’s Patriot Pastor.”

That ended it for me.  I logged off.  “Patriot Pastor” sounds a lot like an oxymoron—like “jumbo shrimp” or “living dead” or “unbiased opinion.”  In my “unbiased opinion”, a patriot pastor is a fundamental piece of the problem in our country. The role of the patriot pastor is to be the State’s cheerleader, not the State’s conscience. The mission of the patriot pastor is to use the spiritual to support the structures of the political without any critical analysis. The goal of the patriot pastor is to preserve the status quo by wrapping the Bible in a flag. The patriot pastor has no interest in reforming the nation or transforming the systems. In the view of the patriot pastor, there is nothing wrong with the way things are. We’re fine.

Historically, it has been “patriot pastors” who have stood hand in hand with those promoting white supremacy. In 1861 (pre-civil war), Rev. James Henley Thornwell, a Harvard-educated scholar and pastor stood in the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and preached, “As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white, bondage is its normal condition. In itself, slavery is not inconsistent with the will of God. The Scriptures not only fail to condemn [it]; they as distinctly sanction slavery as any other social condition of man.”

100 years later in 1961, it was “patriot pastor” Rev. Henry Lyon Jr., of the 3000-member Highland Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, who gave the local Citizens’ Council a “Christian” perspective after the attack on the Freedom Riders in that city.  He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city. If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian. If you want to get in a fight with the one that started separation of the races, then you come face to face with your God.” The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

The problem with “Patriot pastors” is that they empower “patriot parishioners” like the people of The Heights Church in Columbus, MS, who, on June 18, 2020, voted out their pastor, Scott Volland.  According to Volland, he was fired because he spoke out publicly in support of Black Lives Matter and the removal of Confederate monuments in Columbus.  He was told by his church, “your agenda will not work at this church,” and “you don’t speak for the church.”

This co-mingling of Christian faith and white nationalism has been with us from the beginning of the nation. It is our original sin.  Patriot pastors and patriot parishioners have justified not only slavery and segregation, but also the relocation and genocide of first peoples nations.  This sin has perpetuated racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and every other ‘ism’ and ‘phobia’ that denies people full participation in life. This sin has justified the expansion of the American Empire into Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. To this day, Puerto Rico remains under the thumb of US colonialism. This sin has justified coups and interference in democratic elections around the world. This sin has built walls and separated children from their parents and incarcerated innocent people. This sin has justified hate of those our political leaders identify as enemies of the state—even when they are brothers and sisters in Christ. This sin is present today when we hold up the Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other. This sin is a cancer that is eating away at our souls.

The church in America doesn’t need patriot pastors. It needs to return to the Shepherd of our Souls, the prophet and pastor, Jesus.  Pastor Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he had to be born again of water and spirit. Rebirth by the Spirit is only possible when the old life is left to waste away and die—something Nicodemus struggled with.  We know from 2nd Chronicles 7:14 that God rebirths a nation when it turns from wickedness through confession and repentance—something our nation—and the American church—has never been willing to do with our racist systems and policies. Instead we have chosen to cloak ourselves in an individualized gospel of internal change that makes few demands on our collective external life.

Like the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time, this is a day to come together in sackcloth and confess the sin of our ancestors and our own sin of perpetuating it our generation.  The church must reject the poisonous drug of patriotic religion that weakens it and makes it a puppet of the status quo. The Church must instead drink the water of new life and rebirth by the Spirit to rise up as prophets of God’s kingdom.  Only by rebirth into a people of justice and liberation will the church be animated to act powerfully on behalf of the immigrant, the oppressed, the hungry, the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the captive.

This day of Independence is not a day to celebrate, for the American church is not free. It is held in bondage by the ancestral sin of white supremacy and racism.  It is a day to fast and pray, confess and repent of our wicked ways, and seek God’s forgiveness and healing.  Maybe God will hear from heaven and relent from bringing damnation on our nation and make us a nation that God can bless.

(Following the message, time was taken for collective confession and prayer.)

Message from Pastor Ray on June 28, 2020

 

Who could imagine that a strip of cloth could divide a nation? It is.  Face masks are at the center of the on-going political and culture war.

There was a battle in Orange County, CA.  Dr. Nichole Quick, Health Care Agency officer for the county, mandated the wearing of face masks in public in late May. She immediately received email death threats and was falsely accused of being unqualified and inexperienced in public. At one public meeting, several angry people showed up with posters of Dr. Quick’s face with a Hitler mustache and swastikas.  Dr. Quick resigned from her position several weeks later, and the mandate was adjusted to a “recommendation.” Face masks lost the battle in Orange County.

There was a battle in Springfield, IL. Illinois State Representative Darren Bailey refused to wear a face covering during the Special Sessions in April. The legislature had passed a resolution requiring face masks, but Rep. Bailey resisted. In the end, he was voted out of the chamber by a vote of 81-27.  Face masks won the battle in that State House.

What is going on? What is the big deal? Why is there so much resistance to wearing strip of cloth over your mouth and nose when the overwhelming majority of medical experts point to the evidence that when two people wear face masks and maintain physical distance of 6 feet, there is almost no possibility of transmission of the virus?

Is it ignorance and denial? Some people say, “The virus isn’t that bad. It’s not serious.” But if you know someone who has contracted the virus, they will tell you different. Is it arrogance? Some people say, “I’m young and healthy so it won’t affect me.” But the virus is increasingly infecting young people and healthy people.  Is it fear? Some people say, “If this continues, I’ll end up homeless and hungry! Open up the economy now!” But those states that reopened quickly are experiencing a surge in cases and are deciding to enforce more restrictions.

Maybe it is all of the above, but I believe the issue goes deeper. It actually goes to the heart of our society. Our culture is so focused on individual freedom that we no longer see that we have communal responsibilities.  People in this country make their decisions—including the decision to wear a mask or refuse to wear a mask—on the basis of perceived self-interest and the exercise of individual rights. In many people’s estimation, individual freedom and the right to choose must be preserved at all costs, even if it means death for someone else. Unfortunately, even churches have been guilty of asserting their constitutional right to freedom of religion in order to defy orders. We have chosen to act as if freedom is the right to do whatever I want and to pursue my own interests. Period. The freedom that Christ announced is not an invitation to exert rights and privileges, but the invitation to choose to live in right relationships with others. Christ gives us the freedom to choose love—a love that does no harm to one’s neighbor but instead looks out for the needs, concerns and interests of one’s neighbor. It is the freedom to give up my individual rights for the collective good.  It is the freedom to live as the interconnected body of Christ—members of one another expressed in mutual care and mutual benefit.

If we continue to act only out of concern for protecting individual rights and freedom—to “bite and devour one another” without concern and love (in the words of Galatians 5:14-15), we will self-destruct.  It is only when we covenant together for community benefit that is expressed through the protection those who are most at risk and vulnerable that we will experience the fullness of life—God’s beloved community.

Our nation, our world, is at a crossroads. Will we wear a mask or will we refuse to wear a mask?  The answer to that question goes far beyond a face covering. The question (and our answer) strips away the façade of our religion and reveals our true values—our guiding beliefs. The answer to the question reveals whether we love our freedom more than we love our neighbor. The answer reveals whether we value our individual rights more than our communal responsibilities. The answer reveals whether we seek own interests and exert our own sense of privilege to build up our own power or whether we serve our sisters and brothers to raise them up. The answer reveals the truth about who matters and who doesn’t, who is deserving and who is undeserving, who is essential and who is expendable, who will be called holy and who will be called abominations. The answer reveals whose stories we tell and whose stories we silence, what history we honor and what history we hide, and which symbols of the past we believe should be torn down and discarded and which ones should be preserved and honored.

This pandemic is showing us the truth about ourselves—and it is not very attractive. It is showing us that our hearts are masked and we are unwilling to listen and see. It is time to hear and heed the word of Christ and follow his example, expressed in Philippians 2.  “Have this attitude that was in Christ Jesus…”  Though he equal with God and having the rights of God, he gave up his privilege, taking on the role of servant to the least and the lost, finally giving his life. This is our call.  And only by following Christ in the power of the Spirit, becoming servants to one another, will we be raised up together to experience God’s beloved community.  May it be. May it be. Amen.

Pastor Ray’s message from June 21, 2020

 

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers, stepfathers and mentors!  Your role in creating a home with a solid foundation is of incalculable value.  The foundation is key whether it be the foundation of a family or a nation.  Jesus told a parable in Matthew 7:24-27 about a wise and foolish builder, but the parable speaks to the need for having the right foundation.  That parable is happening before our eyes. Let me explain with a parable of my own.

Hundreds of years ago, a beautiful house was built that became the envy of every household in the world. Its grand pillars and impressive design had become a standard for other houses.  Each generation that followed was proud of what their forefathers had built, and they did everything they could to preserve it. It seemed indestructible.  Storms had battered it again and again. It had been buffeted by winds, pelted with hail, and threatened with torrential rains. But the house had survived.  After each storm, repairs were made. Cracks in the walls were filled, sanded and painted. The exterior bricks were tuckpointed. The roof was replaced. The chimney was reinforced.  Every time the house survived a storm, the household gained confidence that the old house would stand forever.

But today, the old house is collapsing. A storm stronger than any felt in at least two hundred years is raging. This storm is exposing the truth about this old house. As beautiful and impressive as it is, this house was built on a faulty foundation.

Throughout the generations, the household thought the foundation was strong.  In fact, the household told stories of how the first generation of builders had built the house on trustworthy, absolute, self-evident pillars—truths that would protect and preserve the house no matter what.  But the truth is: the foundation was flawed. It was not a foundation of rock, but a foundation of sand full of dead men’s bones—a foundation mix of genocide and enslavement and dehumanization and marginalization held together by a distorted religious narrative.  God had ordained it to be.

But now, the old house is collapsing. Its season has ended.

How foolish to think that the truth would remain hidden forever!  How arrogant to think that a house can be built by founding itself on ‘God talk’ while ignoring the word in action.  How conceited to believe that strength comes from professing the truth without possessing the truth. This old house is collapsing. It will fall with a mighty crash.

But do not mourn for this house. It must fall.  Instead, rise up in hope; for a new house is being built.  And beneath it is a stronger, lasting foundation—the foundation of justice, righteousness and truth in the inward parts.  No longer can we accept godly platitudes mixed with ungodly practices. No longer can we be placated with façades of goodness that conceal hateful hearts and evil intentions. No longer can we tolerate the sludge of “church-ianity,” or whitewashed piety.

The new house will be built on what James calls “genuine religion.”  (James 1:27) Genuine religion mirrors the heart of God who welcomes the shunned and the shamed, protects the weak and the vulnerable, and provides for those who are essential but have been treated as expendable. Genuine religion rejects the “wisdom” of a corrupt world that grasps for power and profit, and treats people with contempt. Genuine religion listens to the cries of the oppressed, sees the conditions of the harassed, and rises up to take action against injustice.  Genuine religion raises its voice in the street and cries out with the prophets, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”  Genuine religion seeks shalom and pursues it.  Genuine religion loves not only the neighbors that look like me and think like me and live like me, but also the ones who don’t. Genuine religion hears the word and does the word.  The house built on this foundation will be blessed. This house will stand firm.

On Friday of this week, we celebrated Juneteenth, the Independence Day of the last slaves in Texas following the Civil War. This year’s celebration was unlike any before it. On Saturday, we also participated in the online March on Washington for Moral Revival organized by the Poor Peoples Campaign. More than 30,000 people gathered online to make a new commitment to  the poor and the marginalized.  On Saturday, Humbolt Park and Riis Park were filled with the celebratory music and culture of Puerto Rico in all its glorious diversity. And throughout the week, we continued to march for justice for George Floyd and others who have been the victims of excessive use of force by racialized policing. This is the storm.

The storm has arrived. The day of reckoning is upon us.  The old foundation cannot remain intact when the storm of justice flows.  It’s time to let the old house collapse so the new house – God’s house – built on liberation and equity can be built and occupied. And then – finally – all of us will be free.

Amen.

Pastor Ray’s message on Sunday, June 7, 2020

 

Today’s Gospel text is often referred to as, “The Great Commission.” It is Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples outlining what they are to do next.  It has become the church’s mission statement, its marching order, and the articulation of its fundamental goals.  As such, it has also become an evaluative tool, used to measure its effectiveness and success.

The Great Commission has motivated the church to send missionaries throughout the world to declare the Word of God in every language and establish cells of the body of Christ in every nation.  From the beginning, Jesus’ apostles went out to declare the Lordship of the Risen Christ and challenge the earthly and spiritual powers of oppression and death that held people in bondage. The disciples cared for the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked and provided for the poor in the authority and name of Jesus. And the followers of Jesus changed the world.

Let’s take a minute to take notice of what the Great Commission does NOT say.  It does NOT say, make converts.  The Great Commission isn’t about getting butts in the pews, but feet on the ground. It is not to have people who can quote a creed, but who are being transformed by the power of the Spirit.  It does NOT say make disciples of “some nations”. The Great Commission is not exclusive but inclusive of every nation, ethnicity.  It does not allow us to pick and choose who we want inside the circle and those we want to keep outside of the circle. . It does NOT say, teaching them to obey “a few” of the things I have taught you, but ALL. It is not selective for one’s own comfort or ease. Jesus taught some hard things. We are to obey those too.

The goal of the Great Commission is clear: MAKE DISCIPLES. Disciples are committed followers of Jesus who live under the LORDSHIP of Jesus Christ. Disciples are students who put into practice what they have learned. Disciples are not just hearers of the word; they are doers of the word. Disciples don’t just hold up a Bible; they open it. Disciples don’t pick and choose the commands they like and discard the rest. Disciples don’t justify themselves or excuse themselves; they confess their continual need for God’s mercy and grace and are changed to be the change.

We have a problem. We have plenty of church-goers, but few disciples. We have lots of people who can quote the Bible, but apply it selectively. And we have plenty of people who have decided that allegiance to Christ is synonymous to allegiance to America.

For generations, we have been baptized into a form of Christianity that holds the Bible in one hand and the American flag in the other. We have connected Christian faith to American greatness.  And our discipleship has been a commitment to the American dream.  And we have taken the Great Commission as a command to take the American Way to the ends of the earth by any means necessary.  The Great Commission has become the Great Oppression in our hands.

We have used this form of Christianity to justify genocide and slavery. We have used this form of Christianity to authorize wars and covert operations against those we call our enemies. We have used this form of Christianity to oppress.  We have used this form of Christianity to coerce conversion by force. And the reason? We have failed to recognize who is truly the LORD with all authority.

This week, we were faced again with the long history of our failure to live out true discipleship—obedience to ALL the commands of Jesus—especially the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This week has not only a day of reckoning for the politicians and the police, but for the church. For too long, we have been on the side of oppression. For too long, we have been on the side of division.  For too long, we have been on the side of racism.  For too long, we have been comfortable with Sunday mornings being the most segregated hour in America. For too long, we have chosen to be blind to our participation in the systems that destroy life—especially our economic system that values profit over people.

It took the vicious murder of George Floyd to open our eyes as a nation to the systemic racism that has infected our politics and our religion. I had a long conversation this week with some missionary friends from Spain. They were seeing the news and watching the protests, and they asked, “What are the churches doing?”

Here’s what I hope the churches are doing? I hope the churches are on their knees, repenting.  I hope the churches are recognizing their complicity by their silence. I hope the churches are finally standing up in solidarity and chanting “Black Lives Matter.”  I hope the churches are recognizing the truth about themselves—that they—no, WE—have failed to be the example of God’s inclusive love and God’s radical  upside-down transformation of the world where the last are first and the first are last. I hope the churches are waking up to the need to do justice and not just charity. I hope the churches are rejecting the faith that has been built upon the foundation of Manifest Destiny instead of the Lordship of Christ.

I hope.

I have hope. Last week, hundreds of people of faith marched through the south side in protest and in peace.

There IS an army rising up to break every chain! There are singers that are singing the songs of liberation. There are dancers who are dancing upon injustice.  This is what the church must do. This is what the Great Commission looks like in action.

And the mountains will tremble and the darkness will flee and the river will flow and the people will be set free by the power of Christ, the Risen LORD.  Amen.

Pastor Ray’s Pentecost Message 5/31/20

Until this week, our main focus was on the infectious disease of COVID and flattening the curve of  transmission of the virus so we could reopen our businesses and get back to normal. But today, nobody is talking about COVID.

And we shouldn’t. Because we need to talk about another virus that has been infecting our nation for generations.  We need to talk about the virus of white supremacy.  This virus came over on the ships of the Virginia Company and the Mayflower and took root in the soil from Plymouth Rock to Jamestown. Indigenous people were the first victims of the virus, but 401 years ago, those who were infected went to the shores of Africa, enslaved its people, and brought them to our nation to serve the superior race.

This virus has been so deeply embedded in our nation that even when the slave trade ended, it continued to spread in mutated forms and was embedded in our laws and policies of segregation, separation, discrimination and ghettoization. There were no institutions that were immune to its effects.  Our systems of law enforcement, criminal justice, healthcare, education and economics all bear the marks of the virus. Sadly, even the church has been a hot-spot of the virus’s spread.

Over the years, people have risen up to identify the virus and called out its destructive effects, but most people denied its existence. Occasionally, people took action to contain the virus—even eliminate it.  They challenged the laws and resisted the policies. They worked to pass new laws to end the virus, but this virus was resilient.

Today, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, there has been a resurgence of the virus. We need to acknowledge its presence and its impact. We need to say what it is and what it does.  The virus of white supremacy is SIN and it results in the death and destruction of those who are not white. We need to confess our complicity in its spread. We need to recognize that the virus infects not only our institutions, systems and laws, but it infects our spirits and destroys our moral center. It is not enough to contain the virus.  It is not enough to vaccinate against the virus.  It is not enough to keep our distance from the virus.

This virus is an evil spirit. We don’t need to control it, we need exorcism. We need deliverance. We don’t need to learn how to live with it.  As painful as the process will be, we need to learn how to live without it. We don’t need reformation, we need transformation.  We need a new spirit—the Holy Spirit! We need the viral love of God spread in our hearts that takes over our bodies so we take action for God’s new creation—the new heaven and earth where justice dwells.

And nowhere do we need this transformation more than in the Church.  The Church in America that has been silent for too long because it has been infected too long.  The Church has called itself pro-life, but it has regularly supported the politics of death.  The  Church has been satisfied with the status quo because the status quo has served its purposes and goals.  The Church that has more concern for its structures than the structural inequities in the community. The Church maintains an outward appearance of godliness and holiness, but denies its power.  The Church is so focused on life in the hereafter that it cannot bother itself with life here and now. The Church has chosen comfort over honest confession and safety over the least of these, our siblings.

That first Pentecost, God sent the promised Holy Spirit, giving birth to the church. We need Pentecost again. We need rebirth. We need moral and spiritual revival.  We need the purifying fire. We need the winds of change. Send the Holy Spirit, O God!

Send the fire and purify the church. Send the Holy Spirit, O God!  Send the winds to carry the church back into the world. Send the Holy Spirit, O God! Revive us again! Send the Holy Spirit, O God!  Have mercy upon us. Amen.

Pastor Ray’s Sermon from Ascension Sunday, March 24, 2020 

 

There are two questions that are on everyone’s mind right now is, “When will this be over?” and “What’s going to happen next?” We want information and answers. Knowing helps us to feel in control. But often, we ask the questions with specific expectations and hopes. We want it to be over sooner than later. And when it is over, we want to go back to normal. And when the answers are uncertain—or worse, when the answers aren’t what we want to hear, we feel frustrated and angry. This week, when the governor announced the beginning of Phase 3, you could hear the excitement and relief. Finally, we could start the economic engines. (Va-room, Va-room!) Then Mayor Lightfoot told us Chicago would have to wait a little longer. (Squealing tires) You could hear the disappointment and frustration as she applied the brakes.

I feel that same sense of expectation and frustration in the questions of the disciples. What’s going to happen next, now that Jesus is raised from the dead? Is this the time when Israel will be restored? Jesus’ answer is not just disappointing; it’s frustrating. (Squealing tires) Jesus’ answer? “It’s not for you to know.”

But their question reveals a deeper problem. It is not just that the disciples are impatient. It is not just that they want some certainty and stability. Their problem is that they are hoping for the wrong thing. They understood the political implications of Jesus’ resurrection. After all, the resurrection confirms that Jesus is the Messiah. So they expect the answer to their “What-happens-next” question to be: “I’m going to get rid of the Romans and re-establish King David’s throne and everything is going to be like the good old days. We’ll be back to “normal” in no time.”

Jesus’ answer not only applies the brakes; he then turns the car in another whole direction—away from Jerusalem, away from Judea, and toward “the ends of the earth!” The answer to the “What-happens-next” question is, “I’m leaving, the Spirit is coming, and you’re going!”

The answer to the “What-happens-next” question is: “I’m leaving, the Spirit is coming, and you’re going!”

 

Jesus’ answer reveals God’s global plan-demic: The kingdom of heaven changing the world. God’s plan begins in Jerusalem, but spreads like a virus to the “end of the earth.” God’s plan is not just the end of Roman occupation, but the beginning of a whole new human social order built on the foundation of liberation, equality, peace and justice. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t fit into the old wineskins of nationalism and sectarianism and ethno-centrism. The kingdom of heaven breaks down the old containers of class, race, gender, and religion. New wine skins are needed.  New wine skins are being filled with new wine.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus answered that question with this parable: “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Yeast is an invasive fungus. A small amount put into flour and water will spread throughout the dough, causing it to rise. It changes the composition of the dough. The flour and water are transformed. Yeast is the agent of change.

I recently learned about “imaginal cells” inside caterpillars. These dormant cells are key to their transformation into butterflies. They activate after the caterpillar forms the pupa. Initially, the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the imaginal cells as it would a virus, but soon is overwhelmed as the individual imaginal cells merge and start to share information. The imaginal cells ultimately destroy the caterpillar, turning it into a mass of goo. These cells continue to divide and grow to become a totally new creature–a butterfly–with no genetic connection to the original caterpillar. The old is destroyed; something entirely new is created. The imaginal cells are the agents of change.

“But you…” You will receive power (wait for it!) and you will be my witnesses. We are the invasive fungus that spreads God’s love and grace until the entire world is changed. We are the agents of change. That makes us “fun-guys!”

By the activation of the Spirit, you and I are the imaginal cells, carriers of the transformative gospel code. And as we go forth by the authority of the risen and ascended Christ, the world will be transformed by God’s radical grace and inclusive love. We pray, “Your kingdom will come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are the answer to that prayer as we announce the dawning of the Day of the Lord  all things will be made new. The new creation will be birthed, and the world will be transformed.

The transformation has happened throughout church history. It is the story of the church in the book of Acts. And the transformation continues today. Thanks to the pandemic, we are in the midst of a transformational moment. This is our moment. This week, I watched the imaginal cells growing in Logan Square. God’s people, activated by the Spirit, won City Council approval for 100 units of affordable housing on the Emmett St. parking lot. The dough is being transformed. The caterpillar goo is becoming a butterfly. What began when Christ ascended is continuing. Jesus is seated at God’s right hand.

So, go, invade the world. Go, spread the gospel DNA. Go, and be the change-agents of God’s new world.

Mother’s Day Message delivered Sunday, May 10, 2020

Pastor Bruce Ray

 

We’ve all heard the stories know about how protective mama grizzly bears are of their cubs. But nothing compares to the devotion and protectiveness of the female Pacific Giant Octopus.  Unlike most animals who reproduce regularly, a female octopus will reproduce only one time in her life.  And that one time, she will lay 200,000 eggs at once!   But what really sets apart the octopus mother is her commitment to her offspring.  Once she lays her eggs, she keeps watch over them for an entire month until they hatch—never leaving them for a moment, not even for food. She will nearly starve to death in order to protect the eggs from predators.  Some octopi have even been found to eat their own arms.   Now THAT’s commitment to your children!

Today, we read the story of a mother that was as committed to her daughter as a Pacific Giant Octopus (Mark 7:24-30).  Now I have to forewarn you that this is not really a sermon about mothers or a sermon for mothers.  It’s about God’s commitment to God’s children and about the stories we choose to tell about God and others.

But let’s go back to this story.  A mother had a daughter who was very sick, and there was nothing she could do to help her.  What mother doesn’t worry when her child is getting sicker by the day.  What mother doesn’t feel helpless after trying everything. But then she heard that Jesus was in her town, so she immediately went to see him and seek his help.

But you have to think about this. Consider that this mother had nothing going for her—and everything against her.

First, she was a woman coming alone to Jesus—there is no man is in sight. In Jesus’ day, that’s just not proper.

Second, she is a Gentile.  And the Jews called Gentiles, “dogs.”  For the people around Jesus—and in Matthew’s telling of the story, the crowd included Jesus’ disciples—this woman was just a bitch—no better than an unclean animal.

Last, Matthew also calls her a “Canaanite woman.” That’s another strike against her.  If you remember the stories of the Old Testament, the Canaanites were considered the worst of the worst. According to the stories, they were extremely vile and wicked. They did evil things like sacrifice their children in the fire—making them terrible parents. When stories are told again and again about a group of people, it becomes the only story people know and believe.

By all standards, this evil Canaanite bitch who came from a long line of child-neglecters and child-abusers had no business coming to Jesus, let alone ask for Jesus’ help.  But this mother wasn’t going to be controlled by the racist narrative that had been constructed about her.  She wasn’t going to let attitudes of Gentile inferiority and Canaanite wickedness stop her from seeking help.  She wasn’t going to let the stories, the status, the pressure to fit into the social norms and any other obstacle stand in her way.  In the words of the song, she wasn’t “gonna let nobody turn her around.”  Don’t mess with this mama.  Her daughter needed help.  So she was bold—bold enough to go to places and do things that put her at great risk.

And what did she get for her boldness? She got “put in her place,” that’s what!  Jesus’ response is shocking!  Jesus had never before turned down a request for help and healing.  Jesus healed everyone who came to him and answered every request for help!  But this time, he rejects the request!  Jesus replies, “It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs.”

What the…? Was Jesus just as racist as everyone else? Did he believe and repeat the narrative of Canaanite wickedness everyone else believed? Or was this some strange test of this woman’s faith?  Whatever it was, this woman did not take “NO” for an answer.  She was not going to let Jesus (or anyone else) think that she was just some wicked Canaanite bitch that would sacrifice her daughter in the fire. “Even the dogs get the crumbs,” she said with faith and confidence.

Jesus can only affirm her answer and her faith. He then tells her that her request has been heard and answered.  Her daughter was healed. Think about that for a minute! Jesus confers upon her—the wicked Canaanite bitch who had no man to speak for her—the full blessings of the children of God.  Jesus’ act was a direct challenge to the evil Canaanite narrative and the racist hatred that she had dealt with her entire life.

How often we hear and repeat the stories that dehumanize people—and ultimately give us permission to treat them like dogs.  Again and again we hear the story that immigrants are taking away our jobs and that Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers and thugs.  Again and again, we hear the story that LGBTQIA+ people are abominations and predators. Again and again, we hear the story that black men are criminals and black mothers are lazy welfare queens. These stories are not God’s stories. These are the stories that are told so some can claim God’s blessing for themselves and justify their contempt and mistreatment of those who are not like them. These stories justify separating children from their parents at the border and putting them in cages.  These stories justify assaulting people who speaks another language and telling them to “go back to where they came from.” These stories justify bullying gay teens. These stories justify murdering a black man out for a jog because he was running away and claiming it was done in self-defense.

God tells different stories—stories that challenge the old narratives of guilt, condemnation and inferiority. This story of the Gentile mother seeking help is God’s story. The story of a woman caught in adultery is God’s story. The story of the promiscuous Samaritan woman at the well is God’s story.  God’s stories are stories of boundless grace and limitless mercy; stories of extravagant love and radical inclusion; stories of unexpected blessing in unexpected places.   And these stories teach us that God is committed to all God’s children—not just the Jews, but the Gentiles too; not just the men, but the women too; not just those we think are deserving, but those who have been labeled “undeserving” too; not just the saints, but the sinners too.   God—like the Pacific Giant Octopus—is willing to give up everything—even the life of God’s Only Begotten Son—to give life to all God’s children.

Jesus is challenging us to reject the stories passed down from generation to generation that demean and destroy others, and to tell the new stories of God’s extravagant love.  Jesus invites us to act out those new stories with every person we meet.  And Jesus calls us to live out God’s radical inclusion together so everyone who calls on the name of the Lord can receive the blessings of God’s salvation.

Go, tell these stories; live these stories; be these stories.

Amen.

Message from the 3rd Sunday of Easter Rev. Bruce Ray

Luke 24:13-35

This morning, we heard the gospel story of two followers of Jesus who were on the road to Emmaus three days after the crucifixion of Jesus. They were discussing the events of the past few days—going back and forth in conversation, trying to process everything that happened to understand and make sense of the events. But under the words, there is deep, deep disappointment and grief. It is expressed in the phrase, “We had hoped….”

It is an expression of something we have all felt. Disappointment comes when our expectations are not met.  The higher our expectations, the more disappointment we feel when reality doesn’t deliver. Grief is real for us when “we had hoped, but….”
“I had hoped that this relationship would last a lifetime, but…. I had hoped that she would have been healed, but…. I had hoped that I would get an A on that final exam, but…. I had hoped that I would get the job, but….

We had hoped… these disciples say.
WE HAD HOPED THAT JESUS WAS THE MESSIAH.  He was a prophet, a mighty teacher, a powerful miracle worker.

WE HAD HOPED THAT JESUS WOULD RESCUE ISRAEL.

BUT….  Our leaders condemned him to death and he was executed—crucified, hung on a cross and buried.

High expectations met a devastating new reality, resulting in deep disappointment and grief.

But for these disciples, there is now a new layer of emotion: CONFUSION.  They have heard reports that some of the women saw angels and some of the men confirmed that Jesus’ body was missing.  But it’s been three days since the burial.

One might think that HOPE might arise in the hearts of these disciples, but the fact that they are now leaving Jerusalem and are heading to Emmaus reveals that they can’t afford to hope.  Going to Emmaus is resignation to reality.  There is nothing left for them in Jerusalem. HOPE IS DEAD.

Enter the stranger.  After finding out what they are discussing, the stranger offers the disciples a different understanding of the events–one that he is is supported by the prophets of the Bible. And he takes them on a walk through the Bible—to show them God’s plan.

It’s hard to accept that you have missed the truth–especially when a stranger is telling you.  What the stranger pointed out was that their expectations of Jesus were off.  In fact, their problem wasn’t that their exceptions were wrong, but just incomplete.  Their expectations weren’t too small; they weren’t big enough. Their deepest disappointment was that Israel wasn’t rescued.  They were hoping for the wrong conclusion. Their hope had been that Jesus would be a certain kind of Messiah—a nationalist Messiah that would “rescue Israel.”

Their hope was for a restoration of political independence from Rome. Their Messiah was too limited. They missed seeing God’s bigger plan–the plan revealed in Scripture. The Messiah was not coming just to rescue Israel, but was coming to rescue all of creation and transform the world. The Messiah wasn’t coming just to kick out the Roman oppressors, but to end oppression entirely. The Messiah wasn’t coming just for the Jews, but for Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female.  He was coming to free the cosmos from its bondage to death and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth—starting with a grave robbery.

But even after the Bible study with Jesus, they still couldn’t see or understand. Until… Jesus broke the bread—an act of hospitality and inclusion. An act of generosity and grace. And act of unity and community. And suddenly, the stranger is no longer a stranger. Jesus was with them, welcoming them to experience this new life. He wasn’t the Jesus they had expected. He was not the old Jesus returned, he was the new Jesus—the Jesus who was not bound by space and time, the Jesus who ended the reign of death, the Jesus of a new creation. The Jesus who was eating with them in the kingdom of heaven. They encountered the Risen and Glorified Christ.

It is only then, in the table fellowship with Living Christ that new hope could rise. Their disappointment could not survive in the presence of Jesus–the fulfillment of all expectations.  Their confusion was replaced with understanding, holy heartburn and joyful anticipation of what is yet to come.

When we walk through our week; when we face frustration, confusion, and disappointment; when we struggle in the midst of the injustices of the world; Jesus meets us right where we are and walks with us. But he challenges us to see things from a different point of view—the view from the end rather than the view from the moment.

Our moments – our current reality – eats away at hope, but every time we gather together on the first day of the week; every time we hear the word of the Lord; every time we break the bread and give thanks – we  see Jesus anew. And we remember.

We remember that we are not alone. Christ is with us and we are with each other.
We remember that injustice does not have the final word. Oppression will cease.
We remember that suffering—even unjust suffering—gives way to glory.
We remember that just has Christ was raised from the grave, we too are raised to new life.
We remember that we are the body of Christ, welcomed by God into community, invited to participate in God’s liberating work where there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Gentile, but we are all united in Christ.
We remember that God’s love for the world and God’s plans for the world are total liberation and transformation.
We remember that though we face challenges and difficulties and injustices, we will overcome through Christ who overcame death. We will survive. More than that, we will thrive; because we have seen the Lord;

We have seen the future; we know the ending of the story. We are a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come. So we declare the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia! Amen!

Easter Message by Pastor Bruce Ray

 

During this shelter in place, it is hard to keep track of what day it is. Thank God for Sundays. It has become my touchstone. It keeps me oriented. And it is good to be with you this Sunday—Christ is risen! Amen?

Have you ever wondered why the resurrection happened on Sunday and not on a Tuesday? Or a Wednesday?  I believe God chose Sunday on purpose.

In God’s seven-day calendar, the first day of the week is always associated the creation. On the first day of creation, God said, “Let there be Light” and BAM, there was light.

And on the 7th day of creation, God rested. The Sabbath was set apart as a day of rest and enjoyment of creation. It was the end of the cycle. And the number came 7 came to symbolize completion. Interestingly, the first day of the week also became known as the 8th day. The number 8 in Hebrew literally means “fat” or “abundant.” The eighth day was the first of a new series. A “renewal.” And the number 8 came to symbolize regeneration and the renewal of all creation—the beginning of a new series—a new era of fatness and superabundance.

So it is on the first day of the week that the women went to the tomb. This is the first day of God’s new creation, and the 8th day of God’s superabundance. It was as if God said, “Let there be life” and BAM, there was an empty tomb. This is the beginning of God’s new heaven and earth where righteousness and justice dwell. In the book of Revelation, chapter 21, God announces, “the old order of things has passed away… I am making everything new!”

Theologian NT Wright has said: “God’s new world, the future world as God intends it to be—has broken into the present. The world has already been turned upside down. We don’t need to wait until some future time for God to do something to make things right. God has started the process already. It started on Easter Sunday. God has brought the future into the present in the person of Jesus Christ.”

The resurrection is the fulfillment of God’s promised plans for the world—plans to prosper us and not destroy us. Plans to give us a future and a hope. Isn’t that exactly what we need right now? In these time of coronavirus, it doesn’t feel like we have a future—and so many have lost hope. Take heart; rejoice! God is making all things new!

The old order is crumbling. And while everyone—especially our leaders—promise that everything will “go back to normal” sooner than we think, Easter shouts out, “going back to normal” is not the way to survive. The “old order” is the way of death.

To go back to normal is to go back to the old creation marked by oppression and inequality, the haves and the have-nots, domination and abuse. The old order is marked by environmental destruction and violence and hatred and discrimination. The old order is littered with the bodies of sweatshop workers, migrant labor, desperate immigrant, black and brown prisoners. The old order is good for a few, but it is killing the world. We need to let the old order die so God’s new creation can burst forth.

Instead of wishing for the old normal, God invites us to receive God’s new normal. A world that is changed and is life-giving. Many people are imagining that world. One of the most powerful voices is coming from Kitty O’Meara. Her poem, “And the people stayed home” envisions a new future out of the death of the old normal.

 

 

The resurrection is God’s invitation to go forward into a new life—a life that is marked by righteousness—everything in the right order and in right relationships. This is the new order where all share in the abundance of God; where the lion lays down with the lamb; where the chains of injustice are broken; where the slaves are set free; where swords are turned into plowshares; where there is no male or female, slave or free; where love and peace reign.

The resurrection is just the beginning. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! And you are raised with Christ. You are a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away and the new has come. Today is the beginning of God’s new normal for all of us.

In the words of the old gospel song by Bill Gaither, “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives.”   Amen.

Pastor Ray’s “Palm Sunday” Sermon

 

For the first time in 9 years, our Palm Sunday will not conclude with a march to the Logan Square Eagle monument with the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance. For nine years, our congregations have imagined how things would change if Jesus entered our community. We’ve imagined affordable and public housing, mental health, living wages, protection for undocumented immigrants, an end to violence and more.  A common feature in Occupy Palm Sunday has been our chants.  The chants identify what we want.  “What do we want?  Fill in the blank.  When do we want it?  Now!”

The central chant for Palm Sunday has always been “Hosanna!”  The crowds who surrounded Jesus as he entered Jerusalem shouted it over and over again.  We normally think of the word as a shout of acclamation and praise, and it can mean, “The Lord saves.”  The word declares that God is not far from us.  God is arising in power to deliver us. God is our salvation!  The Messiah is coming.  And when the Messiah comes, change happens.  Hope comes alive. No power on earth can stop it.  Chains are broken, the sick are healed, the blind receive their sight, the poor hear good news, prisoners are set free. There is joy!

But as Reza Alsan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, reminds us, the word is really a prayer.  Hosanna comes from the Hebrew, “Yah, shaw, na,” which means, “Lord, save us!” It is the cry of people who are facing terrible trouble, who feel helpless and desperate. Like our “What do we want?” chant, the crowds fill in the blank with, “Save us”. When do we want it? “Now! Save us now!”

Honestly, I’ve heard this chant again and again over the past weeks as we have watched the coronavirus spread. Every day, we are told to take new precautions to protect ourselves.  Every day, we watch the numbers rise.  Every day, more people die.   And every day, we feel more and more desperate. We feel helpless. We feel vulnerable to its economic impact.  We cry out, “Lord, save us from the depths of despair in these days of disaster. Lord, save us from this disease!  Lord, save us who are on the front lines without adequate protection. Lord, save us from the fear and anxiety that we’re not going to have enough!.  Lord, save us from the creditors that are demanding payment when I’ve lost my job. Lord, save us from ineffective leaders whose only concern is their own interests and wellbeing.”

So, on this Palm Sunday, we cry out again to God, “Hosanna! Lord, Save us!”  The ‘us’ includes the sick, those with chronic illness, those over the age of 60, those who have lost loved ones in a time of social distance, the unemployed, nurses, doctors, the grocery store clerks, the first responders, the letter carriers and delivery personnel, the undocumented, and the incarcerated.  It is all of us.

Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday. We remember that shortly after the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, he was arrested, detained, falsely charged, unjustly tried, wrongfully convicted, and executed. Jesus’ story is the story of thousands of people in Illinois who are trapped an unjust criminal justice system—especially those being detained in jails simply because they are too poor to post bond.  People like Lavette.

 

 

Right now, more than 4,500 people—mostly Black and Brown people just like Lavette—are trapped inside Cook County Jail, not because they are guilty of a crime, but because they are too poor to pay money bond to be released.  By law, these men and women are presumed innocent until proven guilty, yet they are trapped in a place that has become a hot spot for the coronavirus outbreak because social distancing is impossible in a jail.  In effect, innocent detainees are facing the possibility of a death sentence. As of yesterday, 221 detainees have tested positive for the virus and 15 are hospitalized.  Those who work in the jails are also at risk.

Scripture reminds us that whatever we do to our most vulnerable siblings, we do to Jesus. This Holy Week we must decarcerate Christ. The churches of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance  are partnering with the Chicago Community Bond Fund to raise $5000 between today and Maundy Thursday to guarantee the release of one of our incarcerated siblings by Easter.  $5000 represents the average amount of money needed to be released from jail. 

Open your ears and hear their cries, “Hosanna! Lord, save us!”  Let’s join our voices with theirs, crying out, “Lord, save us!” And then, let’s join the liberating work of Christ.  Let’s make this the week that we break the chains of injustice and set the captive free.

And when we gather again on Easter, we will shout together, “Hosanna!” But this time it WILL be a shout of praise, “The Lord saves! The Lord saves!  Hosanna! Hosanna!”

To make a contribution to set an innocent person free from Cook County, go to: https://secure.givelively.org/donate/chicago-community-bond-fund/lsea-palm-sunday-fundraising-action  

To see the daily updates on the coronavirus in Cook County Jail, go to: https://www.cookcountysheriff.org/covid-19-cases-at-ccdoc/