April 29, 2018 Sermon – “Always Room for One More”

Easter Sermon Series, Week 5

Always Room for One More

Acts 8:26-40

Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder on April 29, 2018

[Choir sang “In this Very Room” by Ron Harris]

Thank you for that anthem, choir.

“In This Very Room” is a beautiful reminder of what is true when we gather here on Sunday mornings—there is love in this room, and power in our connection to one another, and most of all, Jesus is here in our midst.

When I listen to it, I imagine a familiar room filled with the faces of so many family and friends, an image which is comforting…and warm.

The first verse says, “In this very room there’s quite enough love for one like me…” But I have to wonder—how far are we willing to go outside of our comfort zones to share love with everyone, even those who are very, very different from us, who even make us very, very uncomfortable?

Our reading from Acts gets at that very question. Philip was a follower, an insider, and one of the seven men named as deacons in chapter 6. In the previous chapter, Stephen, another deacon, became the first martyr, stoned for his belief that Jesus is the Christ. So like the others, Philip had gotten out of town until things cooled down.

An angel told Philip to go to a road leading south out of Jerusalem through the wilderness. Nothing familiar or comforting about that barren landscape! And who should Philip meet on that desolate road but an Ethiopian eunuch.

Now, this man was an outsider on multiple accounts, and I suspect he would have made Philip (and any of the other followers who were also good, observant Jews) very, very uncomfortable.

First, the man was a foreigner, which was a problem for Jews at that time, as all of their religious rituals were about separating themselves. Everything about this man would have been different—his language, his dress, his customs and social norms, his skin color, possibly even the way he smelled.

The man was also quite wealthy. He traveled by chariot with a driver and a shaded seat for himself. He owned a scroll which was very rare and VERY expensive. I have to wonder what Philip thought about seeing a sacred scroll in the hands of someone who was not a Jew, so very different, so very outside the norm.

But perhaps what made this man most an outsider was that he was a eunuch. Throughout antiquity, boys were castrated (do I need to mention it was against their will?) in order to serve specific roles. Eunuchs lost all sexual desire and they had no possibility of descendants to provide or scheme for, so they were valued by kings and rulers as loyal servants. They could be trusted be trusted around the women. This man had earned the trust of the queen of Ethiopia.

The Torah, the Jewish law, however, was very clear about the place of eunuchs in the social order. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that no male with mutilated genitals “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Leviticus 21 was very clear that any person with a blemish or bodily imperfection of any kind was NOT allowed to make an offering in the holy temple—the very heart of worship at that time. Men like this eunuch, or one with a hunchback, or who was blind or injured in any way, were cut off from the worship life of Israel, their culture. They were outcasts.

I can only imagine Philip’s alarm, concern and discomfort when he realized to whom the Holy Spirit had sent him. What was he supposed to do with this???

All Philip had in this desolate, disorienting situation was the presence of the Holy Spirit.

And the Spirit pushed him, to go over to the chariot, where he heard the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah. This led to a conversation about how to make sense of what the Ethiopian man was reading, Philip learns that this man, this outsider, has had a yearning to worship the God of Israel, which turns into a yearning to follow in the way of Jesus.

Then there is this great moment when water suddenly appears in the middle of the wasteland, and the Ethiopian man half asks, half declares, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It’s almost comical, really! Because what could prevent him from being baptized? According to Philip’s tradition, quite a lot! Both the man’s foreign birth and his physical state were disqualifying.

But in the midst of all of this wrongness and discomfort and otherness is the beautiful, glorious absurdity that this outcast outsider is the first one to hear the good news and connect the dots that this promise is also for him! Even “one like him” is included in the ever-widening circle of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and healing and welcome. This man returns to Ethiopia and shares the good news with others there. And Philip has a whole new and unexpected understanding of who is welcome and included in Christ’s kingdom.

In his book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Father Greg Boyle writes (p. 165) “We are sent to the margins not to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different.”

Yes, the Ethiopian man was changed in this story. But Philip was changed, too, perhaps more so.

 

I LOVE this story. For so very many reasons.

I think it reveals the trajectory of what Jesus did and wanted his disciples to continue—ever expanding the boundaries of who is included, who is beloved of God, who “us” is.

It also has a lot to say to us in our time, because there is so much that makes us uncomfortable and afraid.

It gets at the discomfort many feel around the expression of sexuality and gender that do not neatly fall into the “norm” of male and female, and (I would argue) points toward inclusion of all.

It speaks to the way white people feel uncomfortable in the presence of people of color, the implicit bias we have against people who are not white like us, which has too often led to involvement by the police and on occasion the playing out of some officers’ own implicit bias. We have all got to acknowledge the discomfort we have around race and work on it.

Our fear of what is other is made worse by the reality that we have sorted ourselves into neighborhoods, communities, friend groups, churches that are much more homogenous than they were even twenty years ago. The more we sort and silo our lives, the more our view of who is acceptable and welcome and valuable narrows, which is absolutely contrary to the gospel.

What’s the take-away for us?

God is always creating room for one more, always pushing out the boundary of who is welcome and included, not to mention where we are called to go and be and learn.

The Holy Spirit is calling us to places and situations that stretch us and challenge us.

There’s a marvelous prayer from the Benedictines that begins with this:

May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships – so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep with our hearts.

May we all spend time on the margins, in the presence of what is different, so that we, by the grace of God, may be made different, too. Amen.

 

April 22, 2018 Sermon – “A Place at the Table”

Easter Sermon Series, Week 3

A Place at the Table

Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder, April 22, 2018

Are sheep stupid?

That’s their reputation, isn’t it?

But is that true? I wanted to know.

So I asked Google.

The very first result was an article from the BBC that claimed sheep are grossly misunderstood and unfairly stereotyped [link here].

The reality, this article said, is this:

Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.

From this description, sheep don’t sound too different from humans, do they?

I learned more about sheep from a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon[2] on the passage from John, in which she talked with someone who had raised sheep. She learned that sheep develop strong bonds with their shepherds. The shepherd can walk through the flock with no problem, but a stranger doing the same thing would cause pandemonium. The sheep and their shepherd also develop their own communication system. “A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two-note song means that it is time to go home.”

She also learned that sheep aren’t like cows—they can’t be driven from behind, like cowboys on horseback do with shouts and sometimes the crack of a whip. If the shepherd makes noises behind the sheep, the sheep will just circle around behind the shepherd. Cows can be pushed; but sheep? Sheep must be led. Sheep aren’t going anywhere their shepherd hasn’t been.

Sheep trust their shepherd because the shepherd has proven him- or herself to be trustworthy. The shepherd doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble. The shepherd stays with sheep, even when, especially when the going gets tough, because the shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd in return.

So, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is good and appropriate.

After my research this week I feel quite a bit better about Christians as sheep—not mindless followers, but companions who trust with good reason.

Of course, the metaphor of disciples as sheep has some limitations.

One enormous difference between us and sheep is that we aren’t invited to simply follow the shepherd; we are invited to become like the shepherd.

+

One of my spiritual practices is to pray Psalm 23. It’s one of the prayers I use with my prayer beads, or repeat to myself as I walk our dog in the early morning.

For the last several months my brain has gotten stuck—stuck on the first part of verse 5:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…

I get stuck because I want to know what that looks like, exactly.

Are the enemies standing off at a distance, looking on but not invited to the feast, unwelcome at the table?

Is it a show of favoritism, of blessing to one and not the others?

Or, are my enemies at the table, too?

In the original telling of the psalm, I suspect it was intended that the enemies were excluded from the table.

But when I interpret this psalm through Jesus the Good Shepherd, the one who loves and cares for us and who leads us—sometimes into dangerous and uncomfortable places?

Well, I just don’t think there is any getting around Jesus as a table host for ALL, even the ones we consider our enemies. (Especially the ones we consider our enemies.)

Who is your enemy? Your rival? Who gets under your skin? And how does the Good Shepherd challenge your thinking about and relating to these enemies?

This last week I’ve been reading Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the world, located in Los Angeles. Father Greg, or G or G-Dog as the Homies call him, is full of wisdom, grace, joy and the kind of faith I wish that I had more of. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

In the introduction, Father Greg writes about the kinship of God. What does that kinship look like? Boyle writes, “…survival of the fittest is displaced by the survival of the ‘unfittest.’ Cherry-picking makes way for ‘reverse cherry-picking.’ What if we ceased to pledge our allegiance to the bottom line and stood, instead, with those who line the bottom? Us versus Them…or just Us? Good people/bad people…or just God’s people?” (p. 7)

Father Greg tells this beautiful story about one of the homies, a young man who like so very many others had turned to gangs because he was an orphan, abandoned and abused by his parents. But at Homeboy Industries, this young man found acceptance, love, a new family, new kinship.

Shortly after Christmas, Father Greg saw this young man and asked him where he was for the holiday.

“Oh, just right here.”

I said, “Alone?”

And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t have no place to go,” he said. He named them, and they were enemies, from different gangs, rivals.

I said, “What’d you do?”

He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”

I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?”

He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style…,You rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said….

“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done…”

And Father Greg observes, what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done?[3]

In the kinship of God, enemies don’t exist anymore.

If former gang bangers, young people who have grown up in a violent neighborhood in which the only security seemed to be aligning yourself with a gang and becoming part of the violence—if they can discover their kinship and eat a Christmas turkey together? Well…

On Friday morning around 100 students from Mount Vernon High School participated in a National Student Walkout, remembering the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine. I went over to stand witness with them. It was a peaceful assembly. There was a small group of students who disagreed with the protest, but they came out, too, to observe. Well done.

The only disruption was when a truck with a Confederate flag on the license plate and two young men inside drove by—and yelled insults and obscenities at the crowd.

They raised my hackles. I thought unkind, judgmental thoughts. And then I remembered the Good Shepherd, and I imagined myself sitting at a table with these yahoos who are being deliberately obtuse by choosing to ignore the meaning of the Confederate flag!!!!

Pray for them, my better angels told me.

One last thought on sheep: Sheep are fairly defenseless, so they have learned that their survival depends on sticking together. They don’t really have the option of going it alone. They need each other.

The same is true for us. We need each other. Stay together. Make a place for everybody. Keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd.

That’s how we’ll make it in this world. That’s how we’ll make this world…into the kinship of God. Amen.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170418-sheep-are-not-stupid-and-they-are-not-helpless-either

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (1993, Crowley Publishing), “The Voice of the Shepherd,” pp. 140-141.

[3] Krista Tippett and Greg Boyle, On Being Podcast, “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship,” November 22, 2017.

 

April 22 – “Confessions of a Gay Catholic” by Joe Jennison

 

“Confessions of a Gay Catholic”

by Joe Jennison

Sunday, April 22 at 2:00 pm in the Sanctuary

 

Writer/performer Joe Jennison will bring his one-man show “Confessions of a Gay Catholic” to the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, 301/309 First Street NW, Mount Vernon, on Sunday, April 22 at 2 p.m.

The play is a series of true stories that track Jennison’s relationship with the Catholic Church, from his earliest memories as a 7-year-old until today. The play ultimately details his reconciliation with the church after 32 years away. The play will be followed by a brief talkback and reception with the actor/writer.

Despite feeling ostracized by the very church he was baptized in, Jennison continues to attend and advocate for the church he loves. He is the director of the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Community Development Group. “Confessions of a Gay Catholic” is his 25th and most personal play to date.

“In 2011, I had a supernatural experience while attending confession,” said Jennison of his one-man show. “And I started to realize that my own personal story and struggle with my faith and my church is far more interesting than any fictional story I’ve ever written. These stories I tell are personal and true and are written and performed with honesty and love.”

“I saw Joe’s play performed recently at Theatre Cedar Rapids,” said church pastor Lori Wunder. “And I was so moved and honored that this new piece was built from the little piece he did as part of our Living Into Our Vision series that I just had to invite him back.”

Jennison has been writing and performing plays since 1985. His play “A Beautiful Man” was voted Best Play and Best Comedy at the 2003 San Francisco Fringe Festival. He also won the Dean Goodman Award for Best Play that same year. Some titles of his plays include “The Night I Kissed Osama bin Laden,” “Twinsburg,” “Cedar Rapids Famous” and “My Five Husbands,” and have been performed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis. “Confessions of a Gay Catholic” was featured most recently in the Theatre Cedar Rapids Underground Play Festival.

The First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon is pleased to welcome Jennison to the church, an earlier and shorter version of this play, titled “Jesus in the Confessional,” was performed in the church in 2014.

The event is free and open to the public. A goodwill offering will be taken at the performance.

 

April 8, 2018 Sermon – A Place for Everyone

Easter Sermon Series – A Place to Call Home, Week 1

A Place for Everyone

John 20:19-31

April 8, 2018

Rev. Lorene E. Wunder

 

I saw a billboard yesterday that said, “Fear is contagious.”

Isn’t that the truth? “Fear is contagious.”

I haven’t looked into it, but I have to wonder if fear is contagious on purpose, like that’s the way we’re designed. After all, the fear response is intended to keep us alive, right?

But I suspect when we are afraid, we prefer to be afraid with other people rather than alone. Perhaps this is why scary movies are so popular, and haunted houses. For some—not me—it is fun to be scared with your friends.

In a similar way, when there is something we hear or see or read that scares us individually, our impulse is to tell other people. We call others, ask, “Did you hear about…?” when we run into people we know, post and share the story on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.

The saying goes, Misery loves company, and I suspect the same holds true for fear—fear loves company, too.

Perhaps that’s why on the evening of that first Easter, the remaining disciples were huddled together in a locked room, afraid.

Just a moment to talk about context:

Last Sunday, we read Mark’s version of the Easter story, which ends with the women running from the tomb, too scared to say anything to anyone. (But of course, they did tell someone at some point, because gospels were written, and here we are.)

This morning’s reading is from the Gospel of John. In John’s version of Easter morning, we see the women tell the disciples and Mary Magdalene have the experience of meeting the risen Jesus.

And yet…the disciples were still terrified. After all, the religious authorities (which is the more accurate translation of “the Jews” here) might come for them next. They were his followers, other people had seen them with Jesus, so they were huddled and hiding in a locked room, trying to make sense of what the women had told them and what they were supposed to do with this absolutely unforeseen development.

Fear is contagious, and best experienced in a group of people.

Suddenly, through the locked doors and into that frightened group came Jesus, who stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”

Given everything that’s happened, it’s an interesting thing for Jesus to choose to say.

It’s possible that Jesus saying this might have rung a distant bell in the disciples’ heads, calling them back to what Jesus told them just a few days before as he said good-bye to them after washing their feet. Jesus said a lot of things that night—four chapters worth (see John 14-17)—but one thing Jesus promised was this:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Jesus offered them peace. He showed them his hands and his side. The scales fell from their eyes and they began to believe, and even to rejoice. He tells them again, “Peace be with you.” And then our translation says he breathed on them but a better translation is breathed into them, in an echo of the story from Genesis in which God formed humankind out of the dust and breathed into them (Genesis 2:7) to give life. Jesus breathed into them the Holy Spirit, also known as the Advocate or helper (John 14:25), as a gift to help them understand and act.

And these experiences of Jesus made all the difference for the ten disciples here. They could believe and trust again.

However, the 11th disciples Thomas, missed out and because of that, he is forever known as “Doubting Thomas.”

Poor Thomas. It’s really not fair that he got stuck with that name. He only wanted what everyone else got—to have an encounter with Jesus, his own moment of face to face time.

Thomas has an important role to play in John’s gospel. For John, “belief” is not an intellectual assent to a list of propositions (e.g. I believe in God the Father Almighty and Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord and so on and so forth). No. Belief in John is all about relationship, having a relationship with God and with Jesus, and then, finally, with the Holy Spirit. John uses the Greek word meno to describe this relationship; meno can be translated “abide, remain, stay, continue, dwell.”

When Thomas doubted because he wasn’t there, he pointed to the importance of belief as a relationship based on experience. And that gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to look at those of us listening in on the story to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29b)

That moment is a way of saying that going forward, first-hand experiences of Jesus would become far more rare, and that the way faith and belief would happen was and is through the witness of and relationship with other people.

I suspect that for many of you, like me, your own belief, your own relationship with God, is something handed on to you through the witness of others—family members, mentors, friends, pastors, authors, sometimes complete strangers.

My belief, my relationship with God is based on my relationship with other children of God. Yes, I have practices of prayer and contemplation and reading that I must do on my own. But it is essential to be in community, too.

We listen to God’s story together, we worship and pray together, talk about and witness to how we’ve seen it happen in our own lives. When one of us is having a difficult time, we walk together and share the load. When my faith is weak, others of you lift me up, and sometimes it is the other way around.

We believe together because we live together, we are in relationship with one another and because of that, in relationship with God. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. We need each other. That’s how we make it.

Remember that billboard I told you about? I only mentioned half of what it said:

“Fear is contagious. So is hope.

We live in fear-full times. There are real things happening in our world to be afraid of, anxious about, upset about. And, there are forces deliberately at work to keep us afraid, to use our fear to make us support causes and buy products, to manipulate us.

Fear is contagious. So is hope.

That’s why we need this place, this time of worship, this spiritual home, where all are welcome to gather and be reminded that there are always reasons for hope. The way things are right now is not all there is and it is not how things will remain. There is always hope for the future.

And we will find that hope together, abiding with God, keeping our eyes on Jesus, trusting the help of the Holy Spirit and relying on each other.

Thanks be to God for this gift! Amen.