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Monthly Archives: May 2020

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.