Crossing Over

Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9, 3:14-17

This morning, I want you to think about those moments in your life when you “crossed over”.

Now, I’m not talking about some kind of out of body experience where you died and got to visit heaven for a few hours.

Rather, I’m talking about the transitions and experiences in our life that change us, upend us, that mark a significant shift in who we are and how we approach life. Often, they are moments when we leave behind an old version of ourselves and step into a new identity or live more fully into who God created us to be. But no matter what, usually we can point back to this point in our life, this decision, this event where we crossed over from the old into the new.

In my life, I’ve experienced these “crossing over” moments at many points - when I got on that plane to move to Washington DC from Oklahoma after college, when I said “I do” and married my wonderful spouse, when I became a parent, when I said “yes” to God’s call on my life, when I began to put “old bay” on my fries.

Of course, there are also those “crossing over” moments of pain and loss which are not by choice - divorces, separations, the loss of a child or spouse or parent, the ending of a job, tragedy, illness, or deep sadness. We cannot be the same after them. We must learn to accept them and enter into uncharted, unfamiliar territory.

While it may not always seem so, these “crossing over” moments are sacred. They are liminal spaces, where in the uncomfortableness, excitement, conflict, and pain, our life takes us into places we never we could have imagined going. And it’s why in church we often pay special attention to these moments, to the best of our ability. We honor births and deaths, beginnings and endings, joy and grief, questions and answers, welcomes and goodbyes, beauty and chaos. Somehow, we recognize, God shows up in when we “cross over”.

In the beginning of the Book of Joshua, the Israelite people are preparing for their own “crossing over” moment. They have camped on the eastern side of the Jordan River and have come to the end of a long journey that took them 40 years through a brutal wilderness. And on the other side of that river, a new life awaits them, a life that God had promised to their ancestors.

That promise began with Abram in Genesis 12, when God said get up and go to a land that I will show you.

That promise continued in the call to Moses in Exodus 3 when God sent Moses back to Egypt to tell Pharaoh to let my people go and lead them through the wilderness to this Promised Land, a land promised to be overflowing with milk and honey.

Even later, we learn that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and in that moment, God affirmed Jesus as Son, sent by God to lead the people in claiming a new identity, a new community, a new mission.

In the early church, Christians would prepare for and baptize by studying scripture and praying until that day they too were dipped into baptismal waters. Afterwards, before receiving their first communion, they would be given milk and honey to drink, an image of the Promised Land.

So, this “crossing over” is significant and rich and powerful in it how would shape not only Joshua and his people - but how it would shape generations of faithful to come.

After Moses had died on the edge of the Promised Land, God commands Joshua and the people to get ready to cross over into this new land, and drawing from imagery and language straight out of the book of Deuteronomy, God promises to be with the people and not fail them, even in the midst of the hardship and conflict and chaos to come. The people in return are to be obedient, embody the commandments of the law, and trust that the God of their Ancestors would help them complete this journey.

Continually throughout the Old Testament and especially in Joshua, God reminds the people that they have history. God has been in their story for a long time, and God doesn’t forget the promises that are made, no matter how much time has passed. The relationship between God and the people is real. Theologian Norman Habel points out that in Joshua, the relationship is not really with the land they are going into - “the relationship is with their God and not with the land. God is the giver. God can take back what has been given.” The Lord is the one who makes this “crossing over” possible.

In the second part of our reading in chapter three, to emphasize this point, God shows off a little. The people had spent three days preparing to cross the river, and miraculously, as the Ark of the Covenant is carried forward, the waters part for the people. As the families and tribes of Israel cross over, they cross over on dry land. Kind of like God was saying, I got this. Trust me.

Water throughout the Old Testament is often used to represent chaos. Anyone who spends anytime out on a body of water knows that water is to be respected. It is powerful, deadly, and uncontrollable. But God, Alpha and Omega, can hold the chaotic waters at bay, making the path straight and clear for those prepared to become someone new. The people march across and begin to receive the promise God has for them.

A challenge for all of us - as individuals, as families, and even as a church when we hit a crossing over moment - is reminding ourselves that we too have history with God. A core piece of our Christian faith and wisdom is the idea that God has been working in your life from the beginning. Sometimes, it takes many years and some incredible experiences to be able to look back and see the way God worked. But God is present there, showing up in the lowest moments when you didn’t know where the next meal was coming from and in the greatest moments when life seemed to click. Even if you don’t consider yourself a faithful person or a believer, God has history with you. Even when you mess things up, God has history with you.

Even as you face conflict or experience injustice or have to confront something you did that harmed someone else, God says, “I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Verse 3)

That is especially hard to believe when so much is in chaos in our lives. This past week, our city of Hyattsville was hurting and experience chaos after an officer-involved shooting that claimed a man’s life. Our country continues to experience tumult and chaos as the word impeachment fills up our news cycle. Our world seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, from Kashmir to Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia. And no doubt, in your own life, there are things that are simply out of control.

But as we learn to trust in God’s presence even in the raging chaotic waters, we might too find our feet moving on dry land.

God has a way of parting the waters when we think we are about to go under.

Can we learn to trust that God is standing with us, that God loves us, that God’s promises are true?

Of course, these crossing over moments - for the people of Israel and for us - offer us choices in how we will live. How will we respond to God’s care for us? How will we boldly live into our new identity as God’s beloved? Will we follow God’s way - or will we choose power and success even at the expense of others?

The “crossing over” moments in our lives are often just one more beginning on our journeys, after all.

We can live into the good news - or we can choose other ways.

For example, what is troubling to me about the Book of Joshua is that God’s people experience this incredible moment when God affirms them and leads them into their new life - and then the people take God’s command to possess the land as cause to wipe everyone out. After the battle of Jericho, when the walls come tumbling down by God’s power and not the people’s power, the scripture says, without hesitation or flinching, that the Israelites rushed into the city and killed every, man, woman, child, and livestock. It seems such a troubling contrast from the way of Jesus, who ate with and healed the foreigners and Canaanites of his day.

It’s okay, when we read any part of the Bible, to ask questions. To wonder, did God really mean that? Or what is God really saying here?

Next week, we will do just that as we welcome author and speaker, Mark Charles, to our pulpit and for a special after worship conversation. Here in North America, the stories of the Bible, of God’s chosen people given permission to cross the Jordan and possess the land given to them, has justified many stories of genocide and destruction. Many Christian European settlers and politicians crossed over from the “Old World” and used these passages and others to claim that it was the God-given duty or “manifest destiny” of colonists to expand across the North American continent, claiming land that was not their own and bringing violence and loss to indigenous communities from sea to shining sea. Mark is going to help us go deep and find ways to “cross over” from those old narratives that destroy into new narratives that bring life.

Each day, I believe, God invites us to “cross over” and live more deeply and humbly into the way of Jesus, who said that we must be born again to see God’s reign in our lives. (John 3:3)

When wake up each morning -
When we step foot into our workplace -
When we witness injustice -
When we face hard moments -
When no one is looking - **who will we serve?**

Last week, on Tuesday evening, we welcomed about 160 neighbors and community members into our sanctuary to offer space to voice their concerns, frustrations, sadness, and anger over the officer-involved shooting and death of Leonard Shand, a tragedy that has unsettled Hyattsville. In the midst of tension and chaos, all I could do was to pray for every person there and imagine God somehow enticing us to step out into those troubled waters as a church and as a community. To not run away see where God might be leading us. To truly live into our vision as the church at the intersection.

And it may come as a surprise, but intersections are places where we all have to cross over on our way where we need to be.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if other cities around our country, when they experience such a traumatic event like this, might look to our city and our church and our leaders as a model for another way of moving into the chaos and coming out in a direction a little more aligned with justice and compassion? Maybe God has led us to the river’s edge as a church to challenge us to trust that God will not fail or forsake us.

As a church, our Epiphany process, beginning on Wednesday night, is another invitation to cross over. We will welcome a consultant to begin gathering information about our church and our community, and he will tell us some good and hard truths about how our neighborhood has changed. Later on November 16 & 17, a retreat to which each of you are invited, we will begin to reimagine who we are and how God is calling us to live more fully into our identity at the intersection. There will be some chaotic moments, maybe even tense moments, as we confront our old dreams of what life used to be like and think hard about what life could be like.

But our God is calling us to “cross over” - may we take plunge.

(posted October 8, 2019)

Don't Get Locked Out

Scripture: Luke 16:19-31

Last summer while my in-laws were here with us from South Korea, we got tickets to head to a baseball game, and as usual, getting six people in the car on the road on time never goes easy. My father-in-law had gone out to the car to make sure our extra back row of seats were up, my son, Joseph, went out to get in his seat early, and everyone else got ready, putting on sunscreen, hats, stocking bags with snacks, and so on. I am pretty sure I was the last one out when I closed the front door, making sure it was locked, hopped into the car, and then realized I didn’t have the car keys.

I had assumed that since the car was unlocked - someone else had them.

So not only were we NOT going the baseball game, we also couldn’t get back in our now locked front door to get the keys.

I remember being so frustrated and thinking - maybe I should kick my own door down, but I’m not sure that would have impressed my in-laws.

Luckily, we have a beloved neighbor who has an extra set of keys, and he happened to be home and was able to swing by and let us in.

The morale of my story is - don’t get locked out.

And it’s the image I want you to sit with as we dig into our parable that Jesus offers us this morning.

Don’t get locked out.

Most of us have had moments when we have locked ourselves out of cars or our homes or offices. Sometimes, it’s our own poor choices that lead us into a mess. Just like in my rush and my assumptions and my self-absorbedness that day didn’t pause to make sure I had the keys or someone had the keys, our self-absorbed focus in life can get us into trouble.

We may have even felt locked out of other things - relationships, job opportunities, organizations that can help us, or chances for a better life. Our society historically has been pretty good at locking people out of things based on all kinds of things - money, connections, race, gender, or pre-judgments. I read a story just yesterday of a woman who was fighting for her life and medications to receive cancer treatment and had been told that her case was still under review for three months. Locked out of what she needed.

This week I was confronted by the pleading, angry voice of a Day Center guest when he said to me, “I’m tired of sleeping on the streets!” Locked out of a safe place to live.

Think for a minute of all the things that exist to separate us from what we need, all of the division that drives us apart, all of the chasms that keep a more full and whole life just out of reach.

At the heart of this colorful parable that we heard today, Jesus describes a chasm that separates a rich man and Lazarus.

The chasm to that rich man in this moment of reckoning and agony is like that locked front door. He is surprised to find himself at the wrong side of God’s caring presence, and yet it seems like he is close enough to taste what could have been.

At the beginning of Jesus’ story, the situation looked different.

The rich man was at the top of his game. He had everything - his purple Baltimore Ravens gear, his finest luxury tableware, a partial estate. I am certain he had a gorgeous stretch limo and full compliment of staff at his beck and call. He was a popular guy too with everybody who is anybody showing up on the weekends to party with all the important people at his estate. Of course, we don’t know much else about the rich man - did he gain his wealth in dishonest means? Or was he a decent guy? Maybe he lived a decent life, went to the temple, and gave generously to his community. Jesus doesn’t say.

Lazarus on the other hand is in a state of despair. Here is a man in a state of homelessness, a beggar. He is sick with some kind of disease that produces sores on his skin. He has no way to work because of his state, so he comes to the rich man’s luxurious estate to feast off of the leftovers or rummage among the trash for a little caviar tossed out after the most recent block party. Only the dogs come to comfort Lazarus, licking his wounds. Maybe Lazarus mumbled to himself - maybe he was erratic and out of his mind.

In my modern day mind, though I am tempted to make the rich man into a bad guy who couldn’t stand the sight of this beggar at his gates, it’s more likely that he didn’t even know who Lazarus was. When he left his front gates, he was likely riding in his limo, engrossed in conversations about his stocks and portfolio, fielding phone calls from world leaders and presidents, cutting deals and basking in his own brilliance. No doubt, he had personal assistants on retainer whose job it was to coordinate his schedule and keep his world free of clutter. And that staff worked day and night to keep distractions like Lazarus out of sight and out of mind. The rich man had more important stuff on his plate.

Still, how many times did his limo drive past and he did not see Lazarus?

How many times did he step over this man on his way to pick up his newspaper each morning?

When death comes though, as it does to all human beings, their situations change so swiftly that the rich man realizes he has made some serious mistakes. He is in torment on one side of the chasm, burning up in flames of agony. Lazarus on the other hand is being comforted, closely cared for by God’s most trusted servants. But some things do not change - the rich man still doesn’t really see Lazarus. He calls out to Abraham and asks the father of his people to get Lazarus to serve as a servant in the afterlife, dipping his finger in the waters and offer a brief respite from the pain.

Even in death, the rich man can only see Lazarus for what Lazarus can do for him.

But Abraham tells him, “The chasm cannot be crossed. The door is locked. I don’t have the keys.”

Like the parable of the dishonest manager which we lifted up last week, Jesus’ teaching warns his disciples and all who would hear that wealth can only buy you so many comforts. And in the case of the rich man, you can’t take it with you. Wealth, Jesus is clearly affirming over and over again throughout chapter 16, can become a chasm of evil which separates us from God. The rich man’s wealth separated him from those in need. His highly professional staff, his lifestyle, his network of relationships - all of it, in the end, wasn’t up to snuff when Lazarus suffered on his doorstep, and the rich man had all the means and power to do something about it.

Jim Duff, our Outreach Division chair, responded to one of my emails this week, and he pushed back against the idea that Christians, church people, lack compassion. Compassion is not the problem. Most of us have some compassion for those people in our society who are struggling in one way or the other. Rather, Jim said to me, the problem is that we too often believe the lie that it is out of our hands. We can’t do anything about it. It’s just the way the world is.

But is it? Are the chasms of poverty and racism baked into this Creation? Are they permanent features? Or are they made and manifested by human beings who would, each in our way, rather ignore what lies at our front gates?

Jesus is telling his Disciples and all those religious teachers gathered around him - if you ignore the suffering and ignore the opportunity to lend your voice, your hands, your feet, and your resources to end those sins that create people like Lazarus, you will end up locked out in the cold.

At the end of the parable, the rich man seems to have a small change of heart. Rather than think about himself, he thinks about his father and his brothers who he fears may end up in these fires of agony with him. He pleads for Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living to bring this message to them that they must repent, but Abraham responds coldly, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Theologian Barbara Rossing writes, “We are those five siblings of the rich man. We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation, the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we — the five sisters and brothers — see? Will we heed the warning, before it is too late?”

Last Thursday, Leonard Shands, a child of God, a black man who may have been homeless, was shot and killed in a confrontation with police a block away from us here at this intersection. It is easy for us to justify this as status quo. Shands had knives in his hands, and, by reports, he lunged at police. The officers did many things, in their minds, to deescalate the situation or unarm Leonard before resulting to the use of bullets. It is truly tragic - the Hyattsville community is hurting and shocked. But this parable challenges us this morning to not step over a tragic event. To not walk by and say this is just the way the world is.

But to continue to imagine and create a world where there are no chasms that lock us away from each other -
    to invest in a way of life where no one is shuttled off to the edges of our society because of their addictions, their visible sores, their pain -
        to call an end to ways of thinking that only see human beings as a means to an end and not as fully loved by God -
            to denounce hatred and racism and suffering of any kind and embody communities where there are no more Lazarus’s.

All I know is that I don’t want to find myself locked out of God’s mercy.

On Tuesday evening at 6:30 PM, we will open our sanctuary to the community and to city leaders to provide space for the kind of open dialogue that might move us into that future, and I am grateful as a church we continue to say yes to that call, no matter how challenging it may be. And it’s so fitting on this day that we think about our Reconciliation Ministry as a church, a ministry in our denomination that calls us to tear down the walls that separate people and seek the wholeness of our world. May we heed the words of the prophets and the law and Jesus.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on this same scripture reminds us of the good news that God refuses to be held back by the chasms we create. The gospel story reveals that “the cross is the boundless bridge of God’s love connecting time and eternity, humanity and God.” God came to us so that no wall, no chasm, no locked door might bar us from the fullest life imaginable. Maybe that message is our wake up call today before you or I am locked out.

(posted September 29, 2019)

What's in Your Wallet?

Scripture: Luke 16:1-13

Over the past few months, I’ve been seeing these troubling stories about the ways debt is messing up our country and people’s lives.

We’ve heard about
- medical debt preventing some people from getting the treatment they need
- student loans weighing down young people trying to get their professional careers started
- and even lunch money debt preventing kids from having lunch at school

This week, for instance, I received an email from Prince George’s County Public Schools that said starting Monday, kids who owe money or have a $0 account balance can still have lunch in the cafeteria but it will be limited to some crackers, a cheese stick, and a vegetable. That sort of ticks me off. Of course, some of those parents need to deposit some money into their students account, but other parents may simply feel embarrassed or be unable to pay for all kinds of reasons. They may have swallowed the line that asking for or receiving help is not dignified.

Or they may truly not have the money, and student lunches becomes one more debt to have to pay in what can be an unforgiving economic time.

One of our elders, Jesse Brande, said to me in an email this week, “Debt of any kind can be a burden.”

I bet if we took an informal poll of everyone in this room who themselves has trouble with debt or hard months financially or know multiple people who do, we would learn so much more about our current economic reality and the burdens that so many people face. These burdens are not always visible. We are often embarrassed about them. Sure, there are good kinds of debt, but our society is great at marketing to us about bad kinds of debt, including credit card commercials who ask us, “What’s in your wallet?”, and invite us to trust that if we have their kind of card, life is manageable. We can get through those financial crisis. We can trust what’s in our wallet.

Here’s the thing about Jesus - Jesus was never afraid of money. He spent a lot of time talking about money in the gospels. In the Gospel of Luke in particular, 1 out of every 7 verses are related to money. Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak the truth and connect the way people treat money to their values. Jesus wasn’t afraid to call people out for trusting money over God.

In our parable today, we find a clear moment when Jesus addresses the power of money, where he uses images from his culture and his teaching to challenge his disciples to think about whether they use money or if it uses them.

Jesus says later on in this passage that the Pharisees and scribes, or at least some of the religious leaders, had problems with money. They loved money too much. Brian McLaren, an author and pastor, joked about this in a video this week when he said - “We modern readers may need to really think hard and imagine a society that loves money too much.” (Rewrite this)

But this parable of a dishonest manager is kind of confusing. It’s one of Jesus’ harder parables - unless we take a step back and look at what was going on in the culture of 1st century Israel.

So, here is Jesus - teaching his disciples and challenging the Pharisees about money with a peculiar story.

Behind the scenes, what hearers back then would have connected to and we modern readers sometimes miss, is the Roman occupation of Jewish land. When Rome would come in with their armies and power to seize control of territory, they would do so of course to take control of what the land produces - crops and resources to feed and expand their vast army. To do so, it meant taxes. It meant using farmers, especially poor farmers.

The taxes could be hard to pay for small Jewish farmers, especially if the year is a tough one, if the rain didn’t come… if life didn’t go the right way…

If the farmers couldn’t pay their taxes, the Roman authorities could take their land back.

Wealthier Jews would sometimes step in then and help pay for those taxes - with a cost, taking their land or taking their own cut on top of what was already owed to the Romans.

And as Brian McLaren points out - the rich people never went themselves to talk to these landers, but sent managers - middle men - to go cut the deals.

The whole system then could be about exploitation - where those at the top have more power and resources than those at the bottom. Even the guy in the middle would take his own cut from this unjust setup. And no matter what the poor farmers would do, their land and their livelihood was at risk, with either the Roman authorities or their wealthy Jewish landlords.

Enter this strange parable. A rich man, who obviously had land and power at his disposal, learned that his manager was dishonest. He was not doing the job he had been hired to do. We don’t know what he had done wrong, but it’s likely he was cheating his owner. He was an unscrupulous man. The rich man decides to fire this manager, to clean house, to get his operation back in order.

The manager then, aware that the end of his employment is coming, is in serious trouble. He doesn’t want to go and dig ditches for Romans. He doesn’t want to beg on the streets - but he will have nothing after losing this job, so he hightails it up to the north to these little farms that his boss either owns or has cut deals with. He goes from one to the other, settling accounts.

To one, he says, Oh you owe my master this 500 tons of oil? Cut it down to 250.

To another, he says, Oh you owe my master 100 bushels of wheat? Cut it down to 75.

As I’ve read different opinions this week, this dishonest manager’s actions either meant that, instead of taking his own cut on top of what the farmer owed, he forgave that specific amount. Alternately, he was wiping out what his boss would add on over and above what the Romans wanted. Think of it like interest - sometimes, the manager and the rich landlord would ask for that extra amount to pad their own pockets, even though it was against Old Testament law.

And because of this act of generosity to those struggling farmers, this dishonest manager made some friends. For some of those smalltime farmers, this was a huge break - it was the difference between selling their farm and going into debt or even starving. Suddenly, this dishonest manager had friends who might take him in when he is fired, friends who might offer him a meal, maybe friends who could use someone with his experience to work their plot of land.

The dishonest manager, when he learns that his life is about to take a turn for the worse, turns around. He does what we call repentance. He turns away from a pattern of behavior that has cost him a good job - and turns to a way of life that relies on others. He recognizes how he is not alone.

Theologian Brendan Byrne calls this “the great reversal.” It mirrors what Jesus speaks about in the Kingdom of God - when the poor and the outcast and the struggling will be invited in to God’s feast and those who have a lot and are comfortable and happy now will suffer.

The dishonest manager, by building relationships and using his position and power for others, sets himself up to survive what should have been a disaster. Instead, when that pink slip comes, even though his boss may think him clever, at the very least, the dishonest manager will have a couch to crash on until the next opportunity comes along.

Jesus follows up this parable by warning his disciples and all who could hear that money can mess us up and interfere with our relationship with God.

We cannot love God and love wealth. - Jesus says plainly.

So, the question of the parable and of his teachings - do we serve our money, or does our money serve us?

If we are spending too much serving our money, devoted to our money-making enterprises, or trying to find ways to skim off the top, then Jesus challenges us to abandon our idol worship and turn to a new way, a way that will not leave us alone when wealth and privilege dries up. Rabbi Samuel in his reflection on texts of prayer says it this way - “The gates of repentance are always open.” We always have an opportunity to start making small choices or different choices in some way to realign our lives and worth in light of who we are in God than what is in our wallet.

You may have seen images from the Climate Strikes and rallies across the world, often led by young people who are courageously challenging us to abandon our worship of the idol of consumption and domination of our planet’s resources. It’s a prophetic message - but beneath it echo the question of this parable. When we learn that our earth is straining under the weight of pollution and carbon and extinction, are we prepared to make a sudden shift in action?

Jesus through this parable also speaks clearly that in God’s economy, relationship is vastly more important than money. The dishonest manager saves his skin by being generous to others, realizing that he does not live on an island. He needs people. He needs community.

When I was a struggling college kid, sometimes with no cash in my wallet, I was often surprised by these moments at my church when someone would reach out to shake my hand and in their hand would be a $20 bill. I don’t forget those people. It wasn’t a lot, but even in that generosity, it took care of lunch or a gas tank or a grocery trip for a few items. Generosity sustains us in hard times.

We’ve had many stories here at University Christian Church - including one just last week - of former members or friends of our community who years ago we helped out during a hard time in their life… who then years later, when life has become a little better, cut a check and said thank you. Pay it forward to someone else. We received another one of these just last week. I don’t know the person. Maybe a few of you might remember them because they moved away, but the fact that our church’s generosity eased their burden never left their memory.

The good news is that Jesus came to ease our burdens - including our worship of money. It’s a scary thing to think about sometimes - but if we turn our lives around, we will find there is still time to live into God’s community that is unfolding now.

(posted September 22, 2019)

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