“Community: A Communion Of Unity” ~ May 17, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For May 17, 2015 ~ “Celebrating Community”

Romans 12 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=298857033 )

“Community: A Communion Of Unity”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

A video of this sermon can be found online at: https://youtu.be/gPtkc5ka-dY

IntrovertExtrovertHow many of you have ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory? It is a pretty standard questionnaire that seeks to determine a person’s basic psychological and social type. The first of the four scales that it references is whether or not someone is more of an introvert or an extrovert, whether they are more comfortable alone or in groups. I have taken the assessment several times and every single time I fall right in the middle, only a notch or two one way or the other. This feels so true to my own experience, for I am both an introvert and an extrovert... and everything in-between! To look at this positively, it means that I am as comfortable in a crowded community, addressing large assemblies, as I am in speaking with someone one-on-one or even in being completely alone with myself. I attribute any success I may have had as a pastor to this ability to balance these two worlds.

Of course, those of you who are astute will have figured out already that the opposite can sometimes be true: there are moments I am painfully uncomfortable in crowds and times when my skin crawls when I am alone. At my most brazenly honest moments, I see myself as a painfully shy introvert trapped in a chronically exposed extrovert’s life. But, thankfully, these have been few and far between, or at least I have been able to adapt to the dilemma in a socially acceptable way. When I have failed to manage this well, I ask your forgiveness.

ChristInCommunityAnd while both skill sets are helpful, and needed, in being a fully functioning pastor, it is the ability to be comfortable in, to nurture and sustain, and to promote community that I think is the more important ability in the 21st century, and an especially-needed trait in the Church. I say this for all those reasons social commentators and church pundits have been exploring and explaining ad naseum these last few decades, but also because I believe the ability to create and celebrate community is at the core of the Judeo-Christian faith and the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Commentators and pundits have pointed out that due to a variety of reasons, modern American/western civilization’s social skills have become less and less actualized and we have become a far more individualized culture. Robert Putnam’s ground-breaking social commentary from 1997, Bowling Alone: The Collapse And Revival Of American Community, highlighted how our human capital has become more and more focused on private good rather than public good, and how our sense of membership has become more focused on online philanthropy and cyber-activism and less on joining civic-minded groups and long-term participation in them. Added to this is the social media phenomenon where groups of friends, colleagues, even family members are focused, sometimes exclusively, on the small screen in front of them, seemingly to the exclusion of the people physically gathered around them, all the while connecting to others near and far via posts and tweets.

S

Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

Small Group of Franklin Circle Christian Church serving together at the Cleveland Christian Home.

o one of the places where community is still in vogue, is still de riguer, is still common is church. Our faith communities are just that, communities, and while drive-in worship services and sermons posted on YouTube get some press, the idea of showing up to church remains the norm, and when we don’t do it there is still a sense of guilt, even if only passing. So my premise has been these last fourteen years of this congregation’s 173-year history, to focus on building community, nurturing community, sustaining community, and celebrating community. And these last five weeks I have tried to share with you how I have been doing that.

We first considered honoring diversity and focused on Isaiah 56:1-8. We then explored what it meant to liberate laughter, and used 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 as our guide. Next we focused on ensuring justice, and heard Jesus’ speech in the synagogue from Luke 4:14-30 as our own clarion call. Last week we discussed the need to nurture love, with Paul’s case for God’s love in Romans 8:31-39 central to the conversation. These four facets of healthy group life make it possible to truly celebrate community, and I have chosen my favorite scripture from when I began to be a part of the church community as a teenager, Romans 12, as my text today. Let me remind you a little of what I said in these past few weeks.

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Watch Night Fun at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Creation is naturally diverse, and God was richly creative in the way in which humanity has been shaped. But given our human inclinations, we gravitate toward the familiar, the comfortable, and the easy – those just like us. This is not what God wants. Period. God created us diverse for a reason, because we learn and grow best when we are around those who are different from us. When we are reminded, cajoled, and invited to look out for those who are most different from us – even when we are accused of being “politically correct” by doing so – then we are better for it. Franklin Circle Christian Church was diverse when I arrived, but no one can deny that we are far more integrated and empowered as a diverse community today, in not only those who come to our programs and sit in our pews, but those who sit on our church boards and teams and those who envision our future.

HolyHumorSunday

Holy Humor Sunday at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Humor and laughter provide the lubrication and release valve (to create a weirdly mixed metaphor) for community life… but not just any humor and not just any laughter. Jesus made it quite clear that the foolishness in which God engages is never at the expense of someone else and always looks for the joy that can only come in building people up. Holy humor is humor that understands the true absurdity of life – where amoebas and giraffes, long division and black holes, Laverne and Shirley, Ponce de Leon, and Queen Latifa can all exist in the same universe. God-made-real-in-Jesus knew that if the divine being shouldn’t take her/him/itself too seriously, then we ought not to, either. Franklin Circle Christian Church is such an incredibly important and necessary community of faith, on the Near West Side of Cleveland, in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and in the warp and woof of humanity that we simply must laugh at ourselves and enjoy the ride!

GodBeforeGunsMarchAnd then there is justice, which just doesn’t happen, but must be ensured that it will happen. It takes hard work, sweat, and sometimes even tears to make sure that the compassion God had for humanity, the love Jesus had for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, is made real. We will be confident and unapologetic engaging in acts of charity and benevolence that cares for the least amongst us today, as we seek to empower people to be their own change agents and their own best advocates, AND as we seek to address the systemic causes of racism, poverty, ableism, disease, ageism, illiteracy, sexism, homophobia, and heterosexism. Franklin Circle Christian Church has long been on that arc of the moral universe focused on justice, but we must be vigilant lest we be torn apart by those who use false dichotomies and pit justice against compassion or advocacy against evangelism. We know that to do the will of God, follow Jesus, and build the Beloved Community requires doing justice AND loving kindness AND walking humbly with our God.

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Ted & Mary Brogan celebrate their wedding anniversary

Fourthly, whatever we do, whether it be honoring diversity, liberating laughter, or ensuring justice… we must do it with love. Love is the very essence of God and is the ultimate charge Jesus has given to us, his followers. And this has been both the easiest task and the hardest challenge in this congregation. When one gathers folks together, particularly those who have been hurt by loved ones, disregarded by society, and ridiculed by the whims of the world, it is hard not to take out those injuries and offences on those closest to you, those who have opened their arms and hearts to you. But we cannot shoot the wounded! So communities like Franklin Circle Christian Church must love one another and the world around us all the more fully, passionately, even sacrificially. We must love those who are most unlovable, at least by the world’s standards, for that is what Jesus did. We must love humbly, knowing both the majesty of our place in creation and the minuteness of our place in the universe. Our love must be wrapped up with abundant forgiveness, of ourselves and one another, and we must ask for forgiveness as if our lives depend upon it… because they do.

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

Franklin Circle Christian Church Elders

And a community that is able to do these things, honor diversity, liberate laughter, ensure justice, and nurture love, as Franklin Circle Christian Church does and will continue to do, is a community that must be celebrated! This church is Good News to a world hell-bent on bad news. This church is a sign of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and will, if you let it, bring new life to those who are all but dead to themselves and to the world around them. This church is a city on a hill that cannot be hid, it is salt that brings flavor to a painfully boring existence for many, it is a candle that cannot, should not, will not be hidden. No! Proclaim it from the mountaintops! Run or roll or hobble or dance down the streets and avenues and proclaim God is alive and well and living in this community called Franklin Circle Christian Church to friend and neighbor and stranger alike! Celebrate Community, for you are a damn fine community to be celebrated!

Amen.

“Following A PC Jesus” ~ April 19, 2015 Sermon

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Sermon For April 19, 2015 ~ “Honoring Diversity”

Isaiah 56:1-8 ( http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=296437574 )

“Following A PC Jesus”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch the video of this sermon, go online to: https://youtu.be/zXSHcRRcx5s

 

When the end of my short-lived marriage to my college best friend, Barbara, had been announced and word of my divorce because I had come out as gay began to work its way through our network of friends and family, I received a phone call one evening from the pastor of my home church. Ostensibly he was calling to check up on me, however by the end of the call it felt neither pastoral nor helpful. In it he would tell me that my news had caused my mother to have a “nervous breakdown” from which he had to help her recover. That report devastated me, and would haunt me for a long time. But the second thing I remember him telling me at first confused me, then angered me. This anger has lasted a lifetime.

 

bleeding-heart-liberalsIn that call the good pastor had not just insinuated, but had actually accused me of saying that I was gay because I had a “soft heart” and was always trying to take the side of those who were “down on their luck.” I was perplexed because this burning secret, this facet of who I am as a human being and with which I had struggled for almost all my young life he implied was a tactic, at best, or at worse a weakness that I had. He suggested that somehow I had the penchant for taking the side of the underdog, and the proclamation of my being gay and the subsequent complete capsizing of my relationships, my life, and quite potentially my future livelihood was a frailty of personality over which I, apparently, had no control.

 

It would be months, even years, before I realized the full import of his words. Of course, it was audacious to think that my decision to be honest about myself and the ensuing pain I knew this would cause my wife, my mother, and all my closest friends, classmates, and relatives, was the result of some young adult whim I had pass through my silly little head. I presume he was basing this on the conversations we had had the summer before when I was youth intern at my home church. In the middle of that summer, on July 4th weekend to be exact, I had preached a sermon that was, to be fair, less than well thought out on the evils of the Cold War and the need for America and Russia to get their collective acts together, forgive each other, and come back to the world table reconciled. I must presume that sermon – for which there was an expected fallout and public chastising – and the multiple conversations about my involvement in organizations such as the Disciples Peace Fellowship, Handgun Control, Inc., and several environmental groups was the basis for his evaluation of my “personality flaw.”

 

Of course, another way of looking at this was: I was gay. Thoroughly, consistently, constitutionally, completely gay, and my divorce and the reordering of my life was a difficult and woefully delayed but absolutely necessary response to the honesty I had come to acknowledge for myself and my world. It was the evils of a world of homophobia and heterosexism that had caused me to pretend to be other than who God truly created me to be and to try to build around me a false identity to be “just like all the other boys.” And the Church universal was complacent in that evil! I am who I am, and who God made me!

 

But here’s the thing that really angers me: there was also the implication that these social, political, and I would say spiritual commitments were passing fads, and also not part of who I am as a human being. This discounting of my deeply held religious beliefs and well-researched, prayerfully held, and thoughtfully lived-out values happens repeatedly and often. And it doesn’t just happen to me,Politically-Correct it happens all the time to people with similar commitments. One of the most frequent ways it is articulated, and I do not know where or by whom this catchy phrase was first coined, is by calling such values “politically correct,” or “PC” for short. “Oh that’s so PC!” or “You’re just being PC,” or “Well I guess I better be PC!”

 

I stand here this day to say that my commitments to diversity, to inclusivity, to hospitality, to equality, to fairness, and to justice have absolutely nothing at all to do with seeking to be politically correct, whatever that means! I call the world to cease and desist in using this phrase in order to belittle, discount, and seek to destroy the very real responsibilities I believe we all have to those who are oppressed, marginalized, and largely forgotten by society. I demand this because it is not some personality flaw by which I come to these, it is because my Jesus calls me to do it, and the moral arc of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures makes it a mandate for my life.

 

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

What if that good pastor had instead implied or even asked me, “Allen, are you doing this because Jesus is making you do it?” I would have to reply, “Well, yes!” Jesus calls me to be honest about who God made me to be! Jesus calls me to love my neighbor as I love myself! Jesus calls me to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and thus proclaim the acceptable year of our God!

 

So I say to you today, if it is politically correct to sit at table with prostitutes and tax collectors and treat them with the dignity God imparts them, just like Jesus, then I am PC!

 

The logo for the All Peoples Christian Church, Los Angeles, CA.  Find them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AllPeoplesChristianChurch

The logo for the All Peoples Christian Church, Los Angeles, CA. Find them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AllPeoplesChristianChurch

If it is politically correct to believe that foreigners and sexual minorities are capable of faithfulness and can be counted amongst God’s favored people, just like Isaiah, then I am PC!

 

If it is politically correct to know neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free but all can be one in the faith of Jesus, with no human distinction defining them, just like the Apostle Paul, then I am PC!

 

If it is politically correct to turn the other cheek, give someone my coat, go the extra mile, give to those who beg, just like Jesus preached, then I am PC!

 

If it is politically correct to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, just like Jesus preached and lived, then I am PC!

 

If it is politically correct to look out and care for those who society sees as the very dregs of society, the orphan, the widow, the stranger from another land, the poor just like it says in the law of Deuteronomy, then I am PC!

 

If it is politically correct to let justice roll down like waters, to be a restorer of the breech and a repairer of streets, to seek the welfare of the city in which we live, to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God just like the ancient prophets preached, then so be it, I AM POLITICALLY CORRECT!

 

There is a rich diversity with which God has permeated all of creation. Thanks be to God for our differences! But way back in that first Garden, as our eyes and hearts were opened just like the divine eyes and heart, we began to know this diversity is also complexity, and there are forces within each and every one of us if, left unchecked, cause us to treat this diversity with disrespect, even violence. We must be reminded again and again that we are only stewards of this creation, and never owners. And one of the most precious gifts we are charged with, throughout Holy Scripture and culminating in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, is to love, and to make love real by caring for creation, for our neighbors, especially those neighbors in need.

 

One of the guiding scriptures of my life is Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Whether we like to admit it or not, this calls those of us who live a life of privilege, any privilege and no matter how much privilege, to be accountable for it to God. If this is not a mandate to care for those for whom the world determines is the least, the lost, the unloved, the lonely, and the less I do not know what is.

 

And if being responsible for the care of the world and loving my neighbor is PC, so be it. Me? I’m just following Jesus.

 

Amen.

“Enough Is Enough” ~ November 23, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For November 23, 2014

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

“Enough Is Enough”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

 

A beautiful Thanksgiving table is set at the home of David & Geoff.

A beautiful Thanksgiving table is set at the home of David & Geoff.

“Enough Is Enough!” you proclaim as you push yourself away from the Thanksgiving Day table. You have eaten too much already, and far more than you vowed to yourself on the trip over to grandma’s house. She’s been plying you constantly with food, like a barker at the fairgrounds because she knows how hard it is to say “no!” to your grandmother! You marvel at the bounty of the feast, especially knowing the ups and downs of the previous year. Every November you marvel at how your grandmother magically unveils a sumptuous spread of the finest foods, even after years of leanness, even after recurring bouts of cancer, even after years where there were more deaths than births. But still, this body can take only so much ingestion before and explosion is imminent! And, besides, the tryptophan is starting to kick in. Enough is enough…

 

IMG_7997

A member of our human family brutally murdered.

 

Transgender Day Of Remembrance, Cleveland, OH City Hall, November 2012.

Transgender Day Of Remembrance, Cleveland, OH City Hall, November 2012.

“Enough Is Enough!” the mournful marchers proclaim as they slowly move toward the vigil site. The murder of any person is horrible, but the fact that the lives of our transgender sisters and brothers seem to be particularly expendable by the forces of evil in the world is especially despicable. “Sylvia,” “Benny,” “Rosa,” Jacqueline,” “Rayka,” “Prince Joe,” “Toni,” Cristal,” “Alejandra,” “Karen,” “Cris,” “Gizzy,” the names go on and on and on, and the causes of death are as horrific as any horror movie could depict. When will we as a human race finally see that the most important common denominator is that we are alive and we are human, and we all have a rightful place on the planet. As the placards with the pictures of those who have been ruthlessly murdered in the past year are set one by one at the front of the hall, each one of us whispers, “enough is enough…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retirement party for David, from the RTA Police Dept.

Retirement party for David, from the RTA Police Dept.

Ruth's retirement party, from Metro Hospital.

Ruth’s retirement party, from Metro Hospital.

“Enough Is Enough!” she shouts out through the laughter. She had suspected the retirement party was in the works, but she had no idea so many people would turn out for her, a simple elementary school teacher who only wanted to make a difference in one child’s life. Presenter after presenter went on far too long, extoling her virtues and accomplishments like she was a saint or a movie star. She must have had a permanent blush on her face the entire party, as former student after former student, grandchildren of former students who were also her students, administrator after teaching colleague after parent talked about her simple yet effective approach to education, her valuing each and every student like he or she were the only one she would ever teach, her willingness to stand up to self-important superintendents and speak out against hair brained educational schemes. As they hand her the gift, a huge mock check that shows the amount of money raised for the scholarship fund for disadvantaged children who need help with supplies and such, she bursts out into tears crying, “Dear Lord, enough is enough!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rally in the wake of the verdict in the death of Trevon Martin, Cleveland, OH.

Rally in the wake of the verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin, Cleveland, OH.

 

Protester at the rally following the verdict in the killing of Trevor Martin.

Protester at the rally following the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

“Enough Is Enough!” the angry marchers chant as they march up to city hall. “Enough Is Enough!” cry out mothers whose children have been killed by violence on the street – random and calculated. “Enough Is Enough!” cry out fathers whose children have been shot by police mistaking cell phones for guns or playful teen mischievousness for criminal behavior. “Enough Is Enough!” cry out our African American and Hispanic sisters and brothers who see far too many dark-skinned faces on the newscast and on

God Before Guns march and rally, Cleveland, OH, May 2014

God Before Guns march and rally, Cleveland, OH, May 2014

the obituary pages than their population would naturally apportion, whether through the violence of disease, of poverty, or of racism. “Enough Is Enough!” cry out advocates against gun violence when the excuses outnumber the confessions, the self-preservation outweighs the soul-searching, the grand-standing outweighs the problem-solving, the gut impressions and knee-jerk reactions outweigh the statistics and the reality. “Enough Is Enough!” the people in pain cry out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pastor Allen (photographer unknown)

Pastor Allen (photographer unknown)

“Enough Is Enough!” the pastor proclaims to the church that understands deeply God’s bountiful blessings. Being centered in the promise that “God will provide” and certain of the fact that “God has provided,” the congregation finds a focus in the mission they have been called to in this day and in this place and a confidence in the future whatever it may hold. The pastor smiles as he looks out on the faces of the people who give so much… so much time, so much energy, so much talent, so much wisdom, so much faithfulness, so much money… so much money. His heart is full to overflowing, knowing that his people – God’s people – give as much and as best as they are able, to ensure that the amazing ministry of this humble community of Christ happens day in and day out… children and youth are taught in the ways of Jesus; couples are counseled, the sick are visited, the dying are sent off with blessings as abundant as tears; people are fed not only with thoughtful study but food and fellowship; songs are sung to the glory of God and the celebration of humanity; clothing is giving – both the armor of salvation as well as hats and gloves and coats for a harsh winter; space is offered to a community in need of tumbling, yoga, tai chi, and discussions about bike lanes and zoning laws.

 

“Enough Is Enough!” the pastor whispers to himself as pledges of commitment flow in from the community to undergird the church’s work and facilities for the coming year, knowing full well that all the resources needed to sustain strong, vibrant, and true community are already present there – the only need is to inform and inspire and equip those with the resources needed to share.

 

“Enough Is Enough!” the pastor tells himself in the dark and fertile hours of prayer, when soul-searching and self-examination seem to

Allen V. Harris, human.

Allen V. Harris, human.

call him up short, when he feels inadequate to the tasks at hand, much less tasks ahead, when he feels more broken than whole. In those moments of prayer and meditation he is reminded, by the gentle warm winds of the Holy Spirit, that the very reason God chose this clay jar, this cracked pot, was so that it would be made clear to us that this extraordinary power belongs to God, and does not come from us. (2 Cor. 4:7)

 

“Enough Is Enough!” the pastor thinks to himself as he reads the words of thanksgiving for the day: And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Cor. 9:8)

 

Yes, enough is enough… this Thanksgiving, and always. Let us recommit ourselves to making sure that all have enough by sharing abundantly in every good work. And may it be so.

 

Amen.

“Present At The Diner: Who’s Missing From Your Table Of Love?” ~ November 9, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For November 9, 2014

Acts 2:43-47

“Present At The Diner: Who’s Missing From Your Table Of Love?”

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 8.32.44 AMCo-Preached with the Rev. Sandhya Jha

A Sermon Series On “From Bread & Wine To Faith & Giving:

God gives to us at the table and, in turn, God’s giving inspires and empowers our own giving.”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

 

Allen:

Yesterday Craig and I went shopping for a few items at the grocery story. Outside of Dave’s were a group of Boy Scouts who were collecting food items to take to a neighborhood food pantry. They were pretty effective. At the entrance to the store they had some guys handing flyers explaining their project along with a list of food items they needed. Then as you left there were other young men at several shopping carts ready to receive your donations and offer their gratitude. I bought a few items and gladly gave it to them, impressed by their energy and their generous hearts.

 

At home as I was putting away the items in the refrigerator and cupboard I realized I was a bit hungry myself. So I do what I always do for a guy who eats at home rarely and goes to the restaurants far too frequently: I foraged. As I looked for something quick and easy to fix (I had warm soup on my mind as it was a cold day) I noticed all the cans and boxes of food in our cupboards and then back in our pantry, as well as a refrigerator and freezer stuffed to the gills. I was embarrassed with how much food we have stored up, especially in contrast to the cupboards that the Boy Scouts were trying to fill.

 

As I settled back to working on our sermon, hot soup in hand, I thought back a few years ago to Thursday, August 14, 2003 when a huge swath of the Northeastern United States, including Ohio, and parts of Canada had an electric power outage. What I was reflecting on was, once we all figured out that it was a big deal and power wasn’t coming back on soon, how immediately folks began getting food out of our freezers and refrigerators and began asking neighbors if they could find a way to cook or eat from their abundance. There was a natural and easy redistribution of food that wasn’t simply practical, it was fun! I recall sitting on the back deck of our friend Andy and Chandy’s house grilling salmon steaks and chicken and eating ice cream to our hearts content. And we could both see and hear others doing very much the same. What a contrast between the hording of food in my house and the generous sharing of food in our neighborhood that night of the blackout.

 

Sandhya: Meanwhile, back in Oakland, in the basement of the Oakland Peace Center, two floors below where First Christian Church of Oakland worshipped in the sanctuary, Belinda Gilchrist was folding clothes at Project Darries. Project Darries is a food and clothing distribution program run by a woman whose son was killed a few blocks from the OPC about 8 years ago. She established the program so that “no one in this neighborhood needs to turn to violence when they can turn to us instead.” In the midst of the clothes sat a woman happily picking through the clothes for items for her 6 children. She didn’t say anything as she sat there for hours. When one of Belinda’s volunteers asked, “Should we ask her if she should get home,” Belinda said, “she’s surrounded by kids at her house, and I don’t think her husband treats her well. Let her stay here and have a little peace. This is more home for her than her actual home.” Belinda made her choose out something for herself before she left that night.

 

Allen: When we hear scriptures such as Acts 2:43-47 we tend to do one of two things: we discount it as being fanciful and idealistic, or we write it off as being too impractical. Now it is true that much of the Acts of the Apostles is a bit of an idealized look at the first years of the early church. In the same way one might understand the founding writings of the Shakers, the Quakers, the Oneida, or other utopian communities as being a sanitized image of what the in-house historians wanted people to think or believe about the founding values of the movement. But let us not discount what Luke is doing here, because even if the earliest church didn’t hold everything in common, didn’t sell everything they possessed, and didn’t distribute to any who had need, they probably did most of what they said, and anyway the story of them doing so was written down, then handed down, as if they had. Never discount the power of stories! They have the possibility of transforming later generations who, though they might not do it exactly as the founders purportedly had, they are more likely to adhere more closely to those values if the story had not existed!

 

Diner+interior1This is why Carrie Newcomer’s song, Betty’s Diner, is so compelling. It presents an image of heaven on earth, the Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God made real in our midst… in this case in a diner, the quintessential local where anybody is welcome!

Here we are all in one place

The wants and wounds of the human race

Despair and hope sit face to face

When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind

Eggs and toast like bread and wine

She’s heard it all so she don’t mind.

 

Sandhya: Part of the reason I’m glad to be worshipping with you at Franklin Circle Christian Church is because you are healthy and thriving and deeply invested in your community. I spend most of my time working with struggling Disciples congregations. They share a few characteristics in common: they invest most of their resources in their building, they focus on worship and they really want more members to help pay the bills. Unlike this church, they have forgotten the lessons of the early church in the book of Acts. The early church’s worship wasn’t distinctive: the early followers of the risen Christ worshipped at the temple down the road. It was their relationships, their generosity, and their connection to the divine through their relationships to each other that made them distinctive.

 

When I think of communities like the early church, I think of these vital ministries: a UCC church in Phoenix ministering to and with homeless LGBTQ youth who are not welcomed by others, but who are welcomed by this church into membership and into leadership. I think about an Episcopal church in Arkansas that noticed how badly Black and Latino workers were being treated and created a worker center so that those workers would receive the dignity and fair treatment and pay that they deserve as children of God. I think about Recovery Café in San Jose, a Disciples church that has transformed their space into a literal café, like Betty’s Diner, where people can come to deal with any addiction they face, be it alcohol or meth or addiction to consumerism, where they can escape the street and find a community of support. Like the song says, “you never know who’ll be your witness; you never know who’ll grant forgiveness. Look to heaven or sit with us.”

 

Allen: Franklin Circle Christian Church is and has been for decades a bridge-building community, where people of all walks of life, who reflect at least in some small way the great diversity of God’s people, and where we seek to find value and worth and dignity and gifts in every single person who walks through or past our doors. Here we see each other as equal, in God’s heart and then try to embody that in how we live out being church. We share our resources with one another because we see each other as valued sisters and brothers with inherent dignity and worth.

 

The way to do this is to make sure that we tell the stories of this radical sense of true community over and over and over again. We tell the stories, not so that we can feel guilty because we aren’t living it exactly as the early church did (or said they did!) but because it can inspire us to live more like the values that they held. Thus their values become our values because we know and experience the amazing love and unbounded grace of God in Christ Jesus, who reminds us of this great equalization at our booth at God’s diner, the table of Holy Communion.

 

But communities where these values are held, and practiced, and honed, and lived are not common. In fact, they are rare. Thus we must support them when they do appear, and we must support this community to sustain it’s presence in our community. The New Vision Report, which the Official Church Board voted on last month, names that these values, of diversity, inclusivity, hospitality, justice, and equality as critical to the future of this neighborhood. We simply must be the hub in the wheels of development and transformation which are rolling across our community! Without our voice involved in the decision–making that occurs in this community other forces will be allowed to dictate what this community will be based on other values. Franklin Circle Christian Church’s voice must be a part of what is happening, and is going to happen, in this community, and even this city and region.

 

Sandhya: There’s a famous theologian named Marcus Borg. A few years ago he was giving a lecture and a friend of mine got to ask him a question. She said, “Professor Borg, what is the future of the church?” He must have been asked before, because he responded quickly: “Right now there are two types of Christians: conventional Christians who go to church because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and intentional Christians, hungering for a deeper relationship with the divine and the opportunity to serve the community and be in intentional community with others seeking the same thing. In twenty years, all of the conventional Christians will be dead, and all we’ll have left are the intentional Christians. The church will be much smaller, but much more vital.”

 

The Disciples were formed 200 years ago with the vision of re-creating the early church from the book of Acts. I’m not sure how well we’ve done. But this is an exciting moment! For the first time in that two hundred years, I believe we have the opportunity to make it happen, un-ideal as the early church was. We get the chance to tell the stories of our faith and generosity to make it so. We can create accountability with each other for building up the beloved community. And we can build a community around the love of God and of God’s most beloved children, who happen to be the children the rest of society ignores.

 

Allen: We understand that there is no magical place where everyone is happy and all are healthy, where no one has any need that goes unmet and justice reigns supreme. Those places only exist in fantasy comics, Busby Berkeley dance numbers, 1950’s musicals, and histories such as the one offered in the Acts of the Apostles. But every now and then, if we are alert, the electricity may just go off for long enough that we might witness such community appear “as if through a mirror dimly” in the people around us, and even within ourselves. Or we might just walk to the grocery store and see some bright eyed young people acting as if such just and equitable communities are possible, even ordinary and natural.

 

But let us not wait for such unpredictable and rare moments to come and sweep us away. Let us continue to work hard and support this community of faith as we seek to make real the ideal of our forbearers in the faith, to share and share alike, to worship a God whose creation was designed to be shared, to break bread and drink from the cup as together we rehearse the commonwealth of God, the Beloved Community, the Table of Love, until it becomes a reality.

“A Child-Like Faith” ~ September 28, 2014 Sermon

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Sermon For Sunday, September 28, 2014

Matthew 18:1-5

“A Child-Like Faith”

This is the fourth in a series of sermons:

Following The Fundamentals Of The Faith (Without Being Fundamentalist!)

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

Dedication Of Jolee!

Dedication Of Jolee!

I’ve always been taken by the fact that in the story of God’s relationship with us as told in the Hebrew Scriptures, time after time God gets fed up with us and lets us have our way, even if it’s not the divine will nor particularly good for us. In the book of 1 Samuel 8, as translated in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, the climax of the story sounds like this:

When Samuel heard their demand – “Give us a king to rule us!” – he was crushed. How awful! Samuel prayed to God. God answered Samuel, “Go ahead and do what they’re asking. They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King. From the day I brought them out of Egypt until this very day they’ve been behaving like this, leaving me for other gods. And now they’re doing it to you. So let them have their own way. But warn them of what they’re in for. Tell them the way kings operate, just what they’re likely to get from a king.”

I read a lot into the fact that God did not want us to have a sovereign nor monarch to rule over us. It is my belief that the original design of the twelve tribes and the judges who led them was to shape a way of understanding life that could have been, if allowed to work, more communal, consensual, and healthy. There is something inside us that pushes us to want hierarchy, and that urge is neither beneficial nor holy.

Then, as if to make the point imminently comprehensible, God became embodied in Jesus Christ and embodied divine love and sacred grace amongst us. Everything about Jesus, from his humbly birth in a borrowed stable, to his life lived out on the margins of society, to his death as a common criminal radiated solidarity, equality, and collaboration. Today’s scripture, part of a larger conversation Jesus was having with his disciples about leadership, focused on the image of a child as the symbol for greatness. And while the point is still well made in our society and era in history, the message would have been pointedly and painfully clear in an age where children and women were devalued in relationship to men. To become as a child would be to place oneself on the bottom rung of the ladder. God-in-Jesus calmly takes down the ladder and puts it away.

An absolute fundamental of a healthy, vibrant, and devout faith is to understand that mutuality, consensus, and shared leadership reflect the divine will for humanity. Our need for and use of hierarchy reveals more about our lesser and base motives than about God’s will. Systems and language that place one or a few persons over and above others should always be seen as a concession rather than an improvement in the way things should be.

How does this play itself out? Well first and foremost in our language. While I am quite aware that the Bible is submerged in monarchial language and even Jesus refers to God as “king,” you will not, as a rule, hear me use it in reference to God or Jesus in what I write, pray, or preach. In part because we have no real parallels in contemporary culture and thus it is mostly incomprehensible to us, but primarily because it does not reflect the ultimate objective God has for humanity nor our spiritual lives. Likewise, we should avoid language that emphasizes oppressive and top-down imagery in place of communal, cooperative, and consensual communication.

But beyond language, this way of living also becomes manifest in how we shape our human social structures. I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because we have a relentless commitment to non-hierarchical structures and ways of organizing our work in the world. Our three “manifestations of the church,” local – regional – general, all are equal and work with and inform one another; no one “level” is at the top or bottom. We do not have “bishops,” but Regional Ministers. Our clergy – who, by the way, were seen as completely expendable during a portion of our history, even at our church – are consider and Elder among Elders. One of the things the Official Church Board will hear from the New Visioning Team later today is a reminder that all too often folks coming from other religious traditions oftentimes expect me as pastor to act in more authoritarian ways or to have the power to make things happen, when in fact it is the Official Church Board that holds the administrative power in a congregationally-based church. This is why I am committed to this denomination and this church in particular.

And finally, a faithful understanding of what it means to “become like a child” and to “welcome a child” means our way of relating to one another must be consistent with Christ’s model. When we are autocratic and controlling we are less than God intended for us to be. When we communicate more with those around us, when we confer with others often, when we consider the least, the lost, the last, and the loneliest we are following Christ more fully. When we chafe at being put over and above others and relish being on the same level as others, we follow Christ more fully.

And this brings me to my ultimate guiding inspiration for this fundamental of the faith. It comes to us from Philippians 2:2, and enjoins us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

Amen.

Liturgy for the day, written by Rev. Allen V. Harris:

CALL TO WORSHIP

One:           The sparkle of success shimmers bright in our world, and the temptation to greatness based on power and status relentlessly grows stronger…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

One            We revel in God language that mimics warriors and monarchs, and we find strange comfort in speaking of a savior who vanquishes and destroys our enemies…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

One:           Our culture is saturated with images of people and things that are extraordinary, distinctive, one-of-a-kind, unrivaled…

Many:        But it is here we are reminded our goal in life is faith like a child’s.

INVOCATION, CONFESSION, & LORD’S PRAYER

Topsy-turvy God, you have a habit of turning our lives upside down, upsetting our apple carts, knocking over our fruit baskets. As we climb the ladder of success your point out the lilies of the field. As we rise to the top you sit down with the kids. As we idolize the successful you take your seat beside the sinners. Forgive us. You know well how difficult it is for us to walk in Jesus’ sandals. Be gentle with us as you lovingly remind us what is truly important in this world.

Prayers Of The People ~ July 21, 2013

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Rev. Allen V. Harris

Franklin Circle Christian Church ~ Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

 

Following the events of this past week, both in the life of this nation and the work and witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at its General Assembly meeting in Orlando, Florida, I felt that an appropriate use of our time of prayer would be to talk about, and then pray for, the strains that pull on our world at key points of social change and conflict.

 

This past week the verdict in the trial following the death of Trayvon Martin over a year ago was announced, with the suspect charged being named “not guilty.”  From the moment the news of Trayvon’s death was made public, the case was a source of tension as it became representative for the deep divisions our nation still has yet today around issues of race and ethnicity.  The announcement was hailed by some as a vindication of an endangered citizen who chose to “stand his ground” when faced with a threatening situation.  For others, myself included, it was a sad indictment on the ease and speed with which we use violence to solve our problems and the frequency with which that violence is aimed at our African American brothers and sisters.

 

Rally For Justice For Trayvon Martin at the Carl Stokes Justice Center, Cleveland, Ohio July 20, 2013

Rally For Justice For Trayvon Martin at the Carl Stokes Justice Center, Cleveland, Ohio July 20, 2013

At the rally yesterday in front of the Carl Stokes Justice Center in downtown Cleveland, I was reminded that far beyond the actual details of this particular case, the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict announced for the man who killed him, these events represent the  anger and frustration that run deep in the hearts, minds, and souls of African Americans in this nation.  I have now lived through too many of these moments which represent the unsolved problem of racism in America: from the death of Emmit Till to the fiery unrest following the Rodney King verdict; from the riots of Watts and Chicago and Hough to the huge chasms between white and black perspectives that were painfully obvious during the O.J. Simpson trial, the possibilities of racial unity and harmony have yet to be realized and the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community has yet to become a reality.

Rally For Justice For Trayvon Martin at the Carl Stokes Justice Center, Cleveland, Ohio July 20, 2013

Rally For Justice For Trayvon Martin at the Carl Stokes Justice Center, Cleveland, Ohio July 20, 2013

 

And it was with a heavy heart that even in the midst of celebrating a most historic moment in the life of my beloved Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which I have served passionately my entire life, to become a “place of welcome and grace to all,” the gulfs of race were widened.  Even as my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning sisters and brothers were fully welcomed for the first time to the Table and in the life and leadership of the church, the leaders of many of our Hispanic congregations and constituency groups, among others, named their own feelings of pain and exclusion by the vote.  As threats to leave the denomination were realized following the vote, my heart became heavier and heavier.

 

Debate regarding GA-1327 on the floor of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, FL on July 16, 2013

Debate regarding GA-1327 on the floor of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, FL on July 16, 2013

As Christians, we must ask ourselves why, and how, does the acceptance and inclusion of another child of God threaten the values of another believer?  How did we get to the place where honoring the rights, dignity, worth, and even life of another human being become offensive or dangerous to others.  In a faith tradition that celebrates freedom of thought and the centrality of the singular acceptance of Christ as savior, it is confusing, at best, and alarming, at its worst, to think we have developed litmus tests for inclusion in Christ’s church.  We must also have a much more candid conversation about how important it is for our church to discuss and even take stands for justice as a natural and necessary outgrowth of our faith in Jesus Christ, and I commit myself to helping this congregation have that conversation.

 

Jackson Cobb at the microphone during the debate regarding GA-1327 on the floor of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, FL on July 16, 2013

Jackson Cobb at the microphone during the debate regarding GA-1327 on the floor of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, FL on July 16, 2013

So, in keeping with the theme of the Assembly, “Lord, Teach Us To Pray,” we should pray on these things.  But not simply pray, we must pray with a spirit willing to grow and change and learn.  The phrase “teach us to pray,” assumes there is something to learn.  Certainly we need to learn to pray in such a way that our own biases, prejudices, and bad habits are not reinforced through prayer.  We need to pray in such a way that our empathy for the “other,” so palpable in the life and prayers of Jesus, is full, supple, and permeable.  We must pray expectantly, believing with all we are and all we hope to be that change is possible, that the commonwealth of God is a real possibility, and that no human limitation nor failing will ultimately prevent God’s will from being done.

 

Let us, therefore, pray:

 

O God, we ask you once again to pour down your Holy Spirit upon all creation.  Our nation and our church are ever in need of your renewed and renewing presence.  For our sisters and brothers whose fears have been reinforced and whose angers have been stoked by the events of this past week, we pray your Spirit of Hope and Possibility might stay with them and guide them in the coming days, weeks, and years.  For those who celebrate the movement of your Church to welcome those left out and even persecuted by policies and practices we pray your Spirit of Thanksgiving and Humility might stay with them and guide them in the coming days, weeks, and years.  For all of us, O God, we ask that you allow prayer, which was such a powerful force in the life of your beloved child Jesus, to be just such a force in our lives, guiding us, changing us, empowering us to be better people of faith and better citizens, also.  In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

 

 

“The Church: How To Please God” ~ Sermon for June 23, 2013

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Sermon for Sunday, June 23, 2013

Micah 6:6-8

“The Church: How To Please God”

Today’s sermon is part of a series “The State Of The Church/The Fate Of The Church” in conjunction with the work of the New Visioning Team.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To watch a video of this sermon, go to: http://youtu.be/Ff2gTFVvbJ8

Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com ~ Twitter: @FranklinCircle

As young children, don’t we spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what pleases our parents or caregivers?  Do you remember carefully mQUVL_rjgv-lK9c5CvQaydgdrawing a picture on the cover of your handmade mother, father, or grandparent’s day card?  Or learning the “turkey song” for the Thanksgiving school play?  Or building the marble pyramid paperweight, and then offering it to your parent, grandparent, or other adult then intently watching their face for their reaction?  Many of us spent – and perhaps still spend – far too much time trying to please other people and then interpreting their reactions to our words, gifts, and actions.

Similarly, don’t we spend our lives in some way trying to figure out what pleases God, then offering that which we’ve figure out in our own imperfectly human way up to God, and, finally, waiting, watching, wondering if the Divine was pleased with us?  It’s hard enough trying to please an earthbound being who we can observe for nonverbal cues or from whom we can receive immediate feedback, even if all-too-convoluted.  It’s harder trying to gratify one who has no form, doesn’t respond quickly nor clearly, and is omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal!

sr-nancys-words1The nice thing is, we are, in fact, told exactly what we should be doing to please God!  In the words and vision of the 8th Century B.C.E. Hebrew prophet, Micah, that which delights the divine is spelled out: Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

Furthermore, it is spelled out what God is not interested in: bowing before God, giving extravagant offerings, and sacrificing that which is most precious to us.  Psalm 40, verses 6-8 say this in a different way:

  Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

   but you have given me an open ear.

  Burnt-offering and sin-offering

   you have not required.

  Then I said, ‘Here I am;

   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

  I delight to do your will, O my God;

   your law is within my heart.’

We should be thrilled that there are such clear and unequivocal instructions for faithful living in scripture!  And yet, we aren’t.  Why not?  Well, perhaps it is because each of these things urged by Micah are open for discussion and interpretation… Perhaps it is because the things that we are told not to do seem to be exactly what we are doing – in this very moment – and that seems hard to give up… But most likely it is because we understand and treat God chiefly like we understand and treat humans around us, as one with the same likes and dislikes, personality quirks, prejudices, and desires that we all have as human beings.  This last one gets us in trouble again and again.

So what does it mean for us to “do justice,” “love kindness,” and “walk humbly with God?”  And, since this sermon series is looking at the state of the church and not just our personal spiritual lives, how does an institution like Franklin Circle Christian Church translate this into our corporate life?

Franklin Circle Christian Church at worship.

Franklin Circle Christian Church at worship.

First, let’s acknowledge the paradoxical elephant in the room.  On the one hand scripture makes it clear that we should never get caught up in the rituals and rites of worship, what Micah and the writer of the Psalms calls “burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  But on the other hand we do need to worship God all the more authentically and sacrificially!  These ancient practices highlighted were symbolic of the tendency to condense our reverence for God into a few rote actions and words.  Does it mean ending communal worship and stop giving offerings?  No, of course not!  (Good try, though!)  What it surely signifies is that we ought not to equate our entire devotion to the divine with going to church on Sunday morning!  And, by extension, we should resist equating “the Church” with “the church building!”  What Micah protests is worship that is perfunctory, distant, obligatory, and empty.

Members of Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians And Gays Cleveland lobby in Washington, DC for stronger anti-bullying legislation, and Employment & Housing Non-Discrimination legislation.

Members of Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians And Gays Cleveland lobby in Washington, DC for stronger anti-bullying legislation, and Employment & Housing Non-Discrimination legislation.

Second, let’s look at each of these directives.  “Do justice,” Micah tells us.  The word “do” is an action verb, and is also used in the Hebrew scriptures to mean “make or manufacture,” “work for,” “deal in.”  I just love the fact that the first item Micah names as an authentic way to please God is to actively work for justice!  Justice, or “mishpat,” is to bring reconciliation, restore right relationship, and, in keeping with the vast propensity of scripture, to align oneself with the cause of the weakest, the most vulnerable, and the marginalized amongst us.

Phillip, who was in hospice, receives a birthday cake from Virginia and her family.  True kindness.

Phillip, who was in hospice, receives a birthday cake from Virginia and her family. True kindness.

+ Our church would do well to explore more ways to translate our commitment to the marginalized into real action: doing justice, making reconciliation a reality, working for the rights of the least, the last, and the lost.

“Love kindness,” comes next.  Love is the very same word for all the other loves, a passionate and heart-felt adoration and commitment to a person or a cause.  In this case, a love for “chesed” also translated as mercy, lovingkindness, and goodness.  What a wonderful balance for the monarch-confronting, table-turning, in-your-face nature of doing justice of the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus, with the abounding warmth of loving kindness and mercy.

+ Our church would do well to meld our righteous indignation with the injustices of the world with a more humane and tender appreciation for the people involved in the institutions, policies, and processes.  Likewise we should light a fire under our all-too-easy and frequently undemanding words of welcome and inclusion.

Norma, a Third Sunday Meal regular volunteer, is literally "walking the walk" with two Cleveland State University student volunteers, Thomas & Anthony.

Norma, a Third Sunday Meal regular volunteer, is literally “walking the walk” with two Cleveland State University student volunteers, Thomas & Anthony.

And finally, “walk humbly with our God.”  Walk, or “yalak” means both go and come, which is to say our entire manner of life, our very being.  Like the line in Psalm 40, “Here I am,” echoing Isaiah in the temple and the response of the disciples to Jesus’s call to “Come, follow me,” God asks nothing less of us than our all.  Everything.  To “walk humbly with our God” is to understand, yes, that God is with us.  Our ceremonies of Baptism and Holy Communion remind us of this truth.  But knowing that the Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer of Life, and the Spirit of Power are with us always is not a cause for egotism nor arrogance.  In fact, knowing that there is not place we go that God is not with us should subdue our pride.  Christ has no hands nor feet, no ears nor mouth nor shoulder, no heart but ours.  We’s it folks!

+ Our church would do well to equip disciples with both the power and the humility needed to “care for the spiritual needs of a culturally diverse community, encourage creativity, and awaken people to the joys of life with Jesus Christ.”  All the time.  Everywhere we come and go.

Is it easy trying to please God?  Well, yes, and no.  Easy in that scripture has moments that crystalize the divine imperative: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  The difficult part is to make these ways of being faithful the entirety of our lives, as individuals and as a community.  But try we can, and try we must.  Amen.

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