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Monthly Archives: March 2017

From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jews are better than Samaritans.  Everybody knows it.  Jews are God’s chosen people.  Jews are pure.  Samaritans are not.  And there’s “proof” to back up the claim.  (See 2 Kings 17:24ff for the proof summarized here.)

First, everybody knows that Samaritan’s Jewish blood was diluted due to intermarriage.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians Empire.  Many of the people had been taken out of Israel and resettled in other places.  And through an act of the King of Assyria, other non-Jewish groups were brought into Israel to ensure Assyrian domination.  These people intermarried with the Israelites that remained in the land, giving birth to “mixed race” children who became known as Samaritans.   Because of their mixed heritage, Samaritans were unclean—just one step above Gentile ‘dogs’.

Second, everybody knows Samaritan’s Jewish faith was polluted.

         When The Assyrian empire resettled Israel, the new people brought their own religions with them.  But due to a spiritual crisis in Israel, Assyria also sent Jewish priests back to teach the people how to worship the God of Israel. As a result, the Samaritans developed a hybrid religion that included elements of other religious practices. They worshipped God (and other gods) at a high place on Mt. Gerazim, not at the Temple in Jerusalem—the “right” place to worship.  Because of their mixed religion, Samaritans were not true Jews—just one step above pagans.

Samaritans were diluted and polluted and therefore ought to be excluded. Pure Jews had nothing to do with impure Samaritans.  The people God had chosen had nothing to do with the people God had rejected.

Over time, the names of the Empire changed.  The Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians were defeated by the Greeks, the Greeks were defeated by the Romans.  But hundreds of years later, Jews still had nothing to do with Samaritans.  Jews didn’t go through Samaritan neighborhoods—unless they absolutely had no other choice. Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans.  Jews hated Samaritans and would have been happy if God obliterated them from the planet.

And into this world of ethnic and religious division Jesus shows up.  And Jesus can’t go around Samaria on his way to Galilee like every other Jew.  No, he decides he “has to” go through Samaria.  And then, he decides he has to take a pit stop in Sychar.  And then, he decided to start a conversation with Samaritan—and a woman, no less.  (See John 4:4ff)

From Jesus’ disciple’s point of view, this had to be the Road Trip From Hell! Every time Jesus makes a decision, it pushes them to interact with the almost pagan half-breeds they have been told ought to be avoided.

But Jesus is teaching his disciples—both his “then” disciples and his “now” disciples—that the old prejudices and the old divisions and the old exclusiveness and the old boundaries cannot be maintained in God’s new kingdom.

Jesus had to go through Samaria because God included Samaritans in the Kingdom of heaven!  Wrap your head around THAT!

So, Jesus—who is on God’s Kingdom of heaven mission—crosses the lines and not just the territorial line of nationalism, but the cultural line of gender politics, engaging a woman, AND even the line of religious exclusivity.  Not only is Jesus “nice” to Samaritans.  Jesus breaks down all the barriers that separate them—even the religious walls. As the woman at the well reminds Jesus, the Jews say you can only worship God at the temple and Samaritans say God is to be worshipped at the high place.  So, Jesus, what is the correct location?  And Jesus’ answer is quite unexpected from a Jewish point of view: “The day is coming—and now is—when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.”  Jesus does away with the religious exclusiveness altogether!  The correct answer is “neither!” Wrap your head around THAT!

Osvaldo Vena, professor of NT at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, (he’s an expert unlike me) says that John includes this story in his gospel for the benefit of his faith community that is struggling with the challenge of having Samaritans (both male and female) in their church.  The lesson of John 4 legitimizes Samaritan inclusion as equal members in the body of Christ—fully equal so that even the women are to be included in the company of evangelists, teachers, and church leaders.  Jesus’ action of crossing the ethnic, gender and religious boundaries shows us that the old boundaries cannot be maintained and should not be used as a criteria for keeping people out of the full fellowship of the church.

Sadly, the church has failed to learn and live out the lesson, choosing instead to maintain the old boundaries and old presumptions about the ‘other.’  White Europeans are more intelligent than Africans.  And there’s “proof” to back up the claim!  An American physician, Samuel George Morton, conducted studies of cranial capacity in the early 1800’s. He concluded that based on head circumference, Africans were mentally inferior to all other humans. His work legitimized white supremacy and justified the subservience and enslavement of Africans.  Despite the fact that Morton’s research and his scientific method have been debunked, and despite that all subsequent studies have shown no correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence, the narrative of black mental incapacity persists—even to this day.  Just 5 years ago, a study called The American National Election Study found that 44% of white respondents still believed that white people were more intelligent than black people.  And you can find this belief present in every strata of white society including the church.

Sadly, the church needs to continue to learn the lesson of breaking down the boundaries of who is accepted within the circle of God’s new community.  Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we have been told stories about people that are so deeply embedded within us that we frequently aren’t aware of until we are confronted with a passage like John 4.  We still maintain old stereotypes, old prejudices, old boundaries of exclusion based on presumptions about race (blacks aren’t as intelligent as whites), ethnicity (immigrants are criminals), gender (women are the ‘weaker’ sex), gender orientation (gays are perverted), youth of color (Latino kids in groups are gangs) and religion (Muslims are terrorists).  We, like James and John, the Sons of Thunder, would prefer to maintain mistrust and disgust for the outsider/outcast and call down fire from heaven by drone to consume their villages, or incarcerate, or deport, or build walls.  Jesus would show us a different way—the kingdom way that refuses to categorize people into “us” and “them”, “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”, but instead creates a new “us” in relationship to himself.

Jesus is stranger, indeed.  The question is, will we be stranger too?

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From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 19, 2017

Let’s talk about bowels.  Now you may think that bowels may be an appropriate topic for the privacy of your doctor’s office, but not for polite conversations and especially not for a public worship service.  I assure you, bowels are a perfect topic for today and for “Stranger Love”, our fast for immigrant and refugee justice.

Bowels are appropriate because of how frequently they show up in the Bible–both Old and New Testaments.  The Hebrew word for bowels, ‘rachem’, is found 44 times, and the Greek word, ‘splanchnon,’ shows up 11 times.  However, the word doesn’t always refer to the literal body part.   Both the Jews and the Greeks believed that the bowels were the location of deepest feelings and emotions.  Our culture puts the location of emotion and passion in the heart.  For the Jews and Greeks, it was the bowels.  We have several phrases that are similar–“gut reaction”, “gut-wrenching”, “gut-churning” that connote reactions of disgust, of being deeply disturbed, of aversion.  But for Hebrews and Greek, ‘rachem’ and ‘splanchnon’ connoted reactions of compassion, mercy, and pity.

The English word ‘pity’ gets a bad rap. The English word is usually associated with feelings of concern for someone’s suffering from a distance.  It has an air of separation and disconnection and condescension.  It is rarely associated with taking action to relieve suffering.  Not so with Hebrew and Greek.  Pity is an action word.  Pity is a “bowel movement!”  Yes, I went there.

Today, we read the story about Israel’s interaction with Edom at Edom’s border (See Numbers 20:14-21.  The Israelites had just left Egypt and slavery and were on their way to the ‘Promised Land.’  But to get there, they had to cross the land of Edom.  Moses sent a message requesting passage through the territory and giving assurances that Israel would not use Edom’s resources (food and water) for themselves or their livestock without paying for it.   Despite the assurances, Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass their their territory and proceeded to enforce the ban by military action. They turn away their flesh and blood (Edom and Israel were cousins since the Edomites were the descendants of Esau and the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob).  Edom would not welcome them or show any hospitality.  Edom cast off all pity.  That’s what the prophet Amos declared many generations later.  “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity; he maintained his anger perpetually, and kept his wrath forever. So I will send a fire on Teman, and it shall devour the strongholds of Bozrah.”  Amos 1:11-12

They “cast off all pity.”  A literal translations of the Hebrew is, “they shut their bowels”.  And God, who is compassionate and merciful, who is described as “having pity on his people”, responds to the Edomite’s lack of compassion with an announcement of judgment.

The story of Edom is a cautionary tale.  Don’t be like the Edomites.  Don’t be the people who turn away their flesh and blood in their time of need.  Don’t be the nation that “shuts their bowels” to those who are in distress, to those who need help, to those who are under oppression.  God watches the nations and judges the nations in relationship to their response to those in need.

The apostle John reminds his community that love is more than words, but it is action for our brothers and sisters in need that comes out of the “bowels of compassion.”  “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  1 John 3:16-18

The parallels between Edom and the world we live in are obvious.  There are refugees seeking shelter from war.  There are immigrants fleeing environmental disaster.  There are people in poverty and deep distress.  They are at our borders, seeking protection, seeing help, seeking refuge.  But like the Edomites, our nation is shutting our bowels, casting off all pity, sending them away—back into the wilderness—even though we have the means to help them.  And then our nation militarizes our borders to ensure they do not cross.  Our nation has cast off pity.  Our nation has shown contempt for our sisters and brothers, expressing hatred rather than love. Our nation has not heeded the warning.  GOD IS WATCHING.

But we are the children of God–not the children of Esau.  And we must must resist Edom. We must refuse to breathe in Edom’s toxic atmosphere of xenophobia and fear.  We must not give ourselves over to the demands of Edom’s gods of self-interest and self-protection.  We must not conform to Edom’s ideologies of hatred and rejection of the ‘other’.  No!  We worship the God who loves the “alien and the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.”  And because God shows pity on those in distress by relieving their distress, we must also show pity.  Our bowels must be moved by the passion and compassion of God.  We must open our doors to welcome the stranger and provide for those who need refuge.  Our actions will demonstrate God’s love for the immigrant and refugee, and God, who sees what is done, will say to us who have seen the stranger and welcomed her, ‘Come, you who are blessed; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

May we live out our calling as God’s people.  Amen.

Kimball Avenue Church will be joining Bethany United Church of Christ and Pilgrim Lutheran Church to resettle a refugee family in the Chicago area through Refugee One.  At the end of Lent, we will receive a special offering for the project.  Individuals are encouraged to set aside an amount of money each day or week during our Lenten Fast From Xenophobia, “Stranger Love”, to help reach a goal of $6000 to support the refugee family.  If you are interested in assisting in this project, contact the church through the church web site,  or via our Facebook page.  

From Pastor Ray’s sermon from the Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017

It’s St. Patrick’s Day Week!  Yesterday, we turned the Chicago River Green and today there will be a big parade on the south side with lots of Irish dancing and lots of Irish drinking.  And on Friday, March 17, we’ll all officially be Irish for a day (because secretly we all wish we had been born Irish.)

My, how times have changed.  Back in the late 1800’s, being Irish was not high on anyone’s wish list—at least not being Irish in the United States.  As people from Ireland immigrated to the U.S., they were met with discrimination and racism.  Yes, racism.  Though they were white-skinned, they were considered an “inferior race.”  Cartoonists of the day depicted Irish as apes—evolutionary links just one step above the animal kingdom.  They were stereotyped as violent alcoholics by nature. The Irish were detestable to most Americans and they were treated with disdain and contempt.  Employment ads often ended with the statement, “No Irish Need Apply.” Irish immigrants were blamed for all of America’s social ills.  The Chicago Post wrote in the late 1800’s:  “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.”

Being Irish doesn’t sound like an honor.  But the Irish weren’t the only ones who were vilified.  The Chinese came to the U.S. as laborers to support the building of the Continental Railroad.  But most people were suspicious of them because of their appearance and culture. Soon, white Americans complained that there were too many of them.  They were taking jobs away from Americans.  They were a threat to the purity of the white race.  So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  It prohibited Chinese immigration for 10 years.  It was the first immigration ban based on ethnicity.  It was renewed in 1892, and became permanent in 1902.  The ban was not lifted until 1943!  Imagine being Chinese in the U.S. during those 61 years!

At the core of the Chinese ban and calls for Irish deportation was the desire to maintain white racial and cultural superiority. For over 500 years, white Europeans had the power of wealth and weapons to define their superiority and determine the destiny of those they deemed inferior.  And when power is married to a religious mandate like Manifest Destiny, all actions against the inferior races and classes are justified as God’s will.  The United States ‘belonged’ to white people as a gift from God.  One need only look at the treatment of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans to see the superior/inferior dynamic at work. “White” doesn’t make it right.

White America is not unique.  The superior/inferior dynamic can be found in almost every culture and is as old as the Bible.  In Exodus 46:34, we get a glimpse of Egyptian superiority.  “Shepherds were detestable to the Egyptians.”  Those immigrant Israelites who tended livestock were inferior and needed to be segregated in Goshen.  In Exodus 1, a new Pharaoh rises and taps into the racist and classist attitudes. The prosperity of the immigrant Israelites is a threat to national security, and the superior Egyptians determine to do something about the “Israelite problem.”  Thanks to their political power, the Pharaoh enacts public policy to contain the problem, limiting them to occupations of manual labor (the equivalent of slavery). When that didn’t work to contain them, the Pharaoh enacts a policy of population control through infanticide performed by Hebrew Midwives.  And when that didn’t work, Pharaoh authorized “his people” (either the general public or the military) to kill all the boy babies.  Superiority that is threatened always leads to identification, segregation, oppression, suppression, and attempts at annihilation. But God rises up and delivers the inferior Israelites from Egyptian superiority!

Will we always live out the superior/inferior dynamic?  Are we to be forever caught up in this cycle where power defines superiority, where superiority (by default) identifies inferiority and  where oppression is the outcome?  Is there a way out?    The answer is—‘YES!’  And ‘YES!’ is found in the Gospel.  The gospel of Jesus Christ breaks the cycle so that words like ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ no longer apply.  Christ is all and is in all.

Jesus’ gospel elevates the lowly.  As James writes, “Let the one in humble circumstances rejoice in her high position.” God chooses the weak things to shame the strong.  God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise.  God chooses the despised things and the things deemed worthless to bring down the things that are held up in high esteem. God exalts the humble.  God delivers the oppressed.  God seats the lowly among the princes.  God honors the poor.  God welcomes the outcast and sinner.  God provides for the fatherless and the widow.  God welcomes the alien and the stranger. God includes the outsider in God’s family.

But Jesus’ gospel brings down those who are supposedly superior.   As James writes, “Let the high-born rejoice in their humiliation.”  And as Paul writes to the ‘superior’ Romans, “Do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but think with sober judgment.”  To think of oneself as superior is to live in a condition of drunkedness with impaired vision, responses, and perception. Superiority is an illusion. The gospel delivers the ‘superior’ from their self-importance.  God graciously opens their eyes to their emptiness.  God delivers them into Jesus where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor brown, neither Mexican nor Chinese nor Mexican nor Irish, neither superior nor inferior.

So, do not accept the definition of “superior” or “valuable” or “better than.”  It is a false identity.  Only God is good.  And do not accept the definition of “inferior” or “worthless” or “less than.”  It too is a false identity—for God calls what God has made “good.”  Each person bears the stamp of God’s image, but no person is God.   God has brought us all to the foot of the Christ, where the ground is level, where each one is given grace, and where we all see yourselves as we truly are.

Sisters and brothers, in Christ we can no longer view one another from a human point of view and make judgment—superior or inferior—on the basis of human values and classifications.  Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.  Let the one who is “great” become the “least” and the servant.  Let us choose to see Jesus in each immigrant face.  Let us renounce the superior/inferior label so we can receive all those for whom Christ died.  Amen.

From Pastor Ray’s sermon on the first Sunday of Lent, March 5, 2017

In 1974, the book, “The Spaceships of Ezekiel” hit bookstore shelves.  Written by NASA systems manager Josef Blumrich, the book hypothesized and set out to prove that the Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God was actually a close encounter with an alien spaceship.  The book was quickly debunked by the scientific and religious community as a creative, but flawed, interpretation of Scripture that was more about cashing in on recent UFO sightings than on pursuit of science.

While some may still believe that aliens have visited this planet, when the Bible speaks of “aliens”, it is not referring to extraterrestrials.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, “aliens” were a classification of people that resided in a place that was not their original home. The words “stranger” and “foreigner” are often used synonymously or in conjunction with the word “alien.”.  Aliens are outsiders.  Aliens are people who are different.  Aliens are “other.” In our context, we use another word to describe this group.  Aliens are immigrants.  And aliens are, by virtue of their “otherness”, a vulnerable people—at risk of oppression and abuse.

While God recognizes “difference” between alien and native born, God does not advocate exclusion.  In fact, God advocates special attention and protection that leads to full inclusion and acceptance.

  • In Deuteronomy 10:17-19, God is identified as the “Defender of the alien.” God loves the stranger, providing food and clothing for them.
  • In Leviticus 19:34, God’s people are told to love the alien and stranger as themselves.
  • In Isaiah 56:6-7, God envisions the day that foreigners will enjoy full participation in the life of the community—including religious life.

And the New Testament—Matthew’s gospel in particular—fleshes out God’s identification with the alien.   Matthew presents Jesus, whom he has identified as “Emmanuel: God with us”, as an alien.  In two instances in Jesus’ formative years, Jesus is the immigrant.  First, he becomes the refugee in Egypt when Joseph makes a nighttime escape from Bethlehem and the coming genocide of Herod.  Then, Jesus becomes the immigrant in Galilee after Joseph—out of fear for his family’s safety—settles in the backwater town of Nazareth—a place that is hardly on the map.  (See Matthew 2:13 ff)

In both cases, Jesus would have experienced of being the outsider.  In Egypt, Jesus would have experienced the “otherness” of language, religion and culture. He would have been an ethnic, cultural, and religious minority.  And his returned from Egypt only to settle in Nazareth did not enhance his résumé.  Nathanael expressed the prevailing distain for outsider Nazoreans when he asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Galileans were considered lower class.  They were identifiable by their accent. (Remember Peter warming himself outside the trial of Jesus and being identified by the servant girl as “one of them.”)  They were rubes, suspicious characters, not to be fully trusted.  Sound familiar?

So why is “alien” status of Jesus important?  Why does Matthew go to great pains to show us “refugee Jesus” and “immigrant Jesus” right at the start of his gospel?

Mike Angell, an Episcopal priest and blogger, writes:

“Seeing Jesus Christ as an immigrant gives us a lens through which we see his action in scripture. We see Jesus consistently including outsiders in his ministry. He reveals himself to a Samaritan Woman as the Messiah. He includes Matthew the Roman tax collector, and Simon the Zealot among his apostles. He ministers with women, children, lepers, and gentiles. Understanding Jesus as an immigrant outsider helps to articulate the Christological reasoning behind the need for the inclusion of the outsider.”

Matthew is committed to presenting Jesus as one who understands the immigrant experience and identifies himself with the alien and stranger.  And Jesus’ treatment as the outsider is fundamental to understanding his statement to the goats in Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”  The rejection of the stranger is a rejection of Jesus.  Jesus knows the stigma of being an outsider.  Jesus knows rejection.  Conversely, when we receive the stranger and treat them with dignity and inclusion, we welcome Jesus, the immigrant.

That is why we must fast from xenophobia and fear of the outsider this Lent.  The current climate in this country is to identify the “other” and act to protect ourselves from the threat they represent to “our country”, our way of life, our religion, our security.

If we want to welcome Christ, we must defend the immigrant and the refugee.  If we want to welcome Christ, we must stand up for those who are oppressed as outsiders—people like Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old college student who was brought to the US when she was 7.  She was detained by ICE and scheduled for deportation shortly after she spoke at an immigration rally. This, despite her protected DACA (Deferred Action for Child Alien) status.  If we want to welcome Christ, we must speak up when immigrants and refugees are targeted for harassment and discrimination—people like Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, high-tech immigrants from India who were told “Get out of my country” before they were shot by a 51-year-old white man. Srinivas was killed.  If we want to welcome Christ, we must act up to provide a welcoming place for the refugee and the asylum seeker.  We must fast from our fear of the stranger and feast on love—the love that God has for us and the love that God has for the alien and the stranger; Love that is fleshed out in sacrifice, inclusion, and justice.

Because of love, Jesus went to the cross, where—according to the Apostle Paul—the dividing wall of hostility was dismantled and where one new humanity was formed. In this new community, there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, Barbarian or Sythian. There is no “other.” Those who were outsiders are now brought in. The alien and stranger are fully included. To rebuild the dividing walls and reject or marginalize the “other” is to deny the work of Jesus. Only by welcoming the stranger do we affirm the transformational work of Christ in and among us.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

Follow the church’s 2017 Lenten Compact, “Stranger Love: Fast For Immigrant and Refugee Justice” at www.lentencompact.wordpress.com.