ECUMENICAL HUNGER PROGRAM
Our November Special Offering goes to the Ecumenical Hunger Program located in East Palo Alto. The EHP, a private, non‐profit, community‐based organization, has been in existence since 1975. It provides emergency food, clothing, case management, and household essentials to families in need in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto. Staff and volunteers work in partnership with families to provide immediate and long‐term assistance essential for survival and success, providing referrals to resources available to low‐income families and individuals in our community. Their programs include women’s support groups, nutrition and health classes, holiday programs, youth programs and a computer access program. All programs and services are available free of charge and open to those in need. EHP is supported entirely by contributions from the community. Our church has been involved with this very worthwhile program for many years by contributing food, clothing and other household items. Church members volunteer their time, and we give monetary support through this annual offering. This year’s offering goal is $600.00.
To read more, please visit the Ecumenical Hunger Program’s website www.ehpcares.org, or pick up a flyer in the narthex or church entry with this year’s Holiday Wish Lists.
It’s hard to believe that November is here already. November at FBCPA means the gathering of food, money, and turkeys. Lots of turkeys and chickens also. Thanksgiving for the people of East Palo Alto is hard for families to cope with, putting a turkey dinner on the table.
Ecumenical Hunger Program gathers and distributes the food we donate, and delivers them to needy families to help with their turkey feast. We can collect money and canned goods all month. A basket will be in the Narthex, or put EHP on the memo line of your checks placed in the collection plate. The turkeys, chickens and perishables can be brought to church on the day of our FBCPA Gratitude Dinner, Friday, November 21, or the last chance will be on Sunday, November 24th. Everything will be taken to the EHP on Monday, November 24th.”
Sunday, November 2, 2014
1Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
13-15 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
16-18 My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.
This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Once again our McLaren resource has gifted us with a rich selection of texts. We can choose among the stories of Moses and how he came to lead his people to liberty or John’s account of the woman caught in adultery or Paul’s riff on freedom as he tries to straighten out the good folks of First Church, Galatia. All of this is gathered under the theme of “Freedom!” The challenge is that each of these texts approaches freedom from a different perspective.
We considered the call of Moses not long ago, the story of the burning bush, Moses’ reluctance to go and God’s promise to go with him to set God’s people free. McLaren writes that this story “makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims. God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God does not uphold an unjust status quo but works to undermine it so a better future may come” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 39). Once again, McLaren shows us how the God of Israel is distinguished from other gods of the ancient world who would have been firmly on the side of the ruling classes. Shockingly good news! The living God, the great God of the universe, is for the oppressed and downtrodden. God hears the cries of those who are bound by chains of every sort.
The Moses story is about freedom on a grand scale. It’s about the liberation of a entire people, a people with whom God has covenanted to be their God as they will be God’s people. This is a tale of God’s desire that these people live together with one another and with God in peace, harmony and well-being. It holds a promise of the restoration of the rich, abundant life that God laid out in creation. This story has held hope for enslaved people in all generations, from the slaves of the ancient Greco-Roman world to the African slaves brought to US shores, from contemporary structures of apartheid to the poor, downtrodden people of slums and barrios everywhere. The song that begins, “Let my people go,” ends with the refrain, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty. I’m free at last!”
Still, as we know only too well, the road to freedom is long and arduous. The Children of Israel go grumbling and complaining, dragging their feet through forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may desire that God’s people live free, but we make it difficult to find fulfillment of the promise. Take the story of the woman caught in adultery. Her wrong-doing, her sin is not in question here. She is guilty and she knows it and she feels it. The point of the story is the self-righteous judgment of the community that wants to keep her bound to her guilt rather than offer her the liberation of forgiveness and restoration. The great irony is that the community’s self-righteous judgment has them tied up knots as well. They are bound to the letter of an ancient law that serves neither the woman nor the community.
Jesus sees through the hypocrisy and offers freedom to all. But the road to freedom is challenging. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Well, well, that’s not exactly what they were expecting from the teacher. He has turned their blood lust back on themselves. I wonder if, after they have slunk away and spent some time considering his words, they didn’t find some freedom in Jesus’ challenge. Humbling, yes, but liberating as well. “You mean it’s enough to take care of the log in my own eye without worrying about the speck in my neighbor’s eye?” Can you feel the release in not having to carry the burden of another’s sin and guilt along with your own? And, in the process, are we not freed to work together then for the welfare of the whole community? As Richard Hays writes, “freedom in Christ manifests itself through the formation of concrete communities where the old barriers of nation, race, class, and gender are overcome in communion at the one table” (Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI, p. 310).
“For freedom Christ has set you free.” What a word of hope and promise! Paul is writing to a congregation caught between some who insist on adherence to the law, to certain religious rules and practices in order to secure God’s favor, and those who insist that they are free of any such rules and practice. It is not unlike the situation with the community that comes to Jesus ready to stone their neighbor. Keep the rules or you’re headed for hell. But that sort of judgment is beyond our pay grade and, in fact, Jesus has liberated us from such a burden.
Remember how Jesus summarized the law – love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, the irony being that he drew these mandates directly from the ancient texts. This is a liberating word, easy to remember, enough to focus the practice of a life time. Love God, love neighbor.
In his teaching on freedom, Paul reinforces this liberating word, “…everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Then, in case they don’t get the full import, he adds a timely warning, “If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”
Just to be clear, he reminds the members of First Church, Galatia, that the freedom he’s talking about is not license. The freedom we find in Christ is freedom that comes with responsibility. As a reminder of our exploration of “Rivalry and Reconciliation,” Elisabeth Johnson tells us that “Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community” (Elisabeth Johnson, “Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25, June 27, 2010,” workingpreacher.org).
We’re not free to do whatever we want, certainly not without consequences. Paul says the road to freedom leads to a crucial fork. If you take the fork toward getting your own way all the time, you’ll find yourself wandering through “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
The other fork leads to the freedom to serve, the freedom to care for one another and the community, the freedom to love as we are loved. It’s not cheap freedom. It comes at a price, but is well worth it in the end. Here we find ourselves immersed in “…things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involve[ment] in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, [the ability] to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
Well, there you go, the road to freedom. Walking this road has implications for people and nations and creation itself. It also has implications for you and me and First Baptist, Palo Alto. When we come to that crucial juncture in the road which route will we take, the one to self-interest, self-righteous and selfishness or the one to love for God and neighbor and ultimate freedom? “It’s a long road to freedom, awinding steep and high, but when you walk in love with the wind on your wing and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the miles fly by.” Amen.
What do we most want our kids to gain from their involvement at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto? This is the question we began with when the parents of our children and youth joined Carolyn Shepard and me for a conversation after worship on October 12. Our discussion included a lot of affirmation for our current programming for children and youth, as well as some great suggestions for future directions we might pursue.
Parents expressed appreciation for the ways in which our Sunday school program helps to ground our children and youth in the primary stories, beliefs, and practice of our faith. For many parents, this was central to what they most want for their kids. We also celebrated the strong relationships that exist among our kids, the degree to which they enjoy being together, and the valuable cross-generational connections between youth and adults in our congregation. Appreciation was expressed for the ways Elizabeth Ramirez makes effective use of Bible stories and hands-on projects in working with our younger children, and for how the discussion based format used with our older youth exposes them to different opinions and understandings of critical faith questions.
Our conversations pointed to several ideas about how our Sunday schedule for youth might be adjusted. It was suggested that having the older youth remain in worship for the entire service on Communion Sundays would both strengthen their connections
with the larger congregation and involve them more fully in the overall worship life of the church. On other Sundays, it was suggested that both children and youth leave for Sunday school a bit earlier in the service (immediately after the special music) to allow a bit more lesson time. These suggestions were later shared with Pastor Rick and the church council, and will be tested out over the next several months.
I also shared materials from the Echo the Story curriculum we’ll be using for the next few months with our older youth. This month, I will be looking for a curriculum for our younger kids that might guide for teaching our younger children. I remain deeply grateful for the ways in which the nurture of our children and youth in the faith is a task that’s taken seriously not just by the parents of our kids but by our entire congregation here in Palo Alto.
Doug Davidson, Minister with Children, Youth and Families
Doxology – “a short hymn of praise to God,” according to Wikipedia. I was thinking about this because Jan and I were talking Sunday about changing our “Song of Response” (our modernized term for “doxology.”) I imagine that some of you are aware that we change that sung response from time.
During World Mission month, In October, we have been using “For Fish and Poi” in that slot. In the Advent/Christmas season, we use the verse from “What Child Is This?” that begins “So bring him incense, gold and myrrh…” Other options have been the traditional “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” and “We Give Thee but Thine Own” (a personal favorite for both Jan and me.) Recently we have used the 5th stanza of “Rejoice, the Lord is King”:
Praise God who rules all worlds, the risen Christ adore.
Praise God the Spirit, Holy Fire, one God forevermore!
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.
All my life in the church (which is, of course, ALL my life,) there has been some form of doxology at the point in the worship service when the offering is brought forth and prayed over. So, I have always associated “The Doxology” with gratitude and giving. Everyone knows that’s the offering song. It is interesting, then, to discover that the song is not necessarily about the offering, it is about praising God, which, of course, should be the focus of all our worship.
To me the obvious connection is in praising God for the ways in which we have been blessed and recognizing that whatever we give is a return, in gratitude and joy, for what we have received. Another of my favorite hymns sings:
There’s not a plant or flower below, but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be, Thou, God art present there.
Surely this recognition of God’s presence in our lives and throughout is
cause for gratitude and songs of praise.
We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.
All that we have and are is a trust from God. What would our lives and the world around us be like if carried this concept into every aspect of our living? This concept fits well with the journey we have been on with Brian McLaren. Remember the starting place, God created all there is and called it good, including you and me. Then God invited us to share in God’s love and care for creation, including one another. This is foundational to our faith. The word we commonly use for this is stewardship.
We are co‐caregivers and sometimes even co‐creators with God. We are invited to look around to see the treasure that God has embedded in even the least of these. Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us of “every common bush afire with God.” I’ve mentioned before the artistry of our friend and colleague, Sue Yarborough, from New Community of Faith, who takes amazing photographs, close‐up, of the interior of flowers. At times the “God‐presence” in those photos is palpable. We used one particularly powerful one on the cover of our bulletin for Pentecost Sunday. We have responsibility both to care and share with God in the abundant and surpassing beauty and goodness of creation.
Now to the mundane. The above is preface, or maybe it’s grounding for this “Season of Gratitude.” We know that this is the time of year in which every non‐profit does some appeal for funding. Our mailboxes fill up with the letters and flyers. There is an assumption that holidays ahead breed a giving spirit. The church is no different.
This is the time of year when we appeal to you to support the church’s budget by making pledges for next year. It can be very awkward to ask others for money, but, because I believe in FBCPA and its ministry, I am not reticent to ask for your support. There are many good things happening here in ministry to and with this world so full of God. We have been faithful in our stewardship of our community and our facilities and I pray that we will continue in that faithfulness into the future God has for us. Remember, “We make the road by walking” and part of that journey is our financial support, the gifts we give back to God, because we have been so blessed that we want to bless others through the ministries of our congregation.
Is it too far‐fetched to think of our giving as “doxology” – a song of praise to God for all that God shares with us? I invite you to join me in a “Season of Gratitude” in which we open ourselves in every way – spiritually, compassionately, financially ‐ to praising God from the very core of our being. In gratitude to God for all we are and have, let us claim identity and practice as
“More light, more love, more life” – God bless and keep us, inspire us and guide us on this journey into God’s future.
One difficulty of working our way through the Bible in a calendar year is that there are more great texts than there are Sundays. Some days you have to consider more than one and this is one of those days. In his project, Brian McLaren is trying to help us see significant themes from these gathered texts that will help us understand the Bible in new, exciting ways. Today, under the theme “Rivalry or Reconciliation?” we can choose among the reunion of Esau and Jacob, the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats or the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an embarrassment of riches! We will focus on the Joseph story, perhaps the least familiar, but have something to say about the others.
This is not the first time in this series or in this year that we have considered sibling rivalry. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau – sibling rivalry is as old as humankind. “You got a bigger piece!” “I’m smarter than you.” “Oh yeah, well can you do this?” “Mom always liked you best.” “I hate you and I’m never going to speak to you again.” I’m sure you can add your own lines to the litany. As we considered in the Cain and Abel story, this rivalry may be a result of a deep-seated belief that there is not enough love to go around.
I’m sure no one here ever played favorites or angled to be favored or blamed it on your sibling or took credit you didn’t deserve. I suppose all rivalry is not literally sibling rivalry though we might trace the roots of rivalry to this source. But what if see ourselves and all humanity as sisters and brothers in the family of God. Then all rivalry is indeed sibling rivalry. What difference would it make in our lives and in our world if we could learn to see one another as siblings, children of the one God, one family in faith?
We considered the wonderful story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau earlier this year. Remember how Jacob, the trickster and scoundrel, with his mother’s help, steals his brother’s birthright and blessing? All the scheming does him little good as he ends up fleeing his brother’s murderous rage to live in exile. Eventually Jacob risks coming home because, like the Prodigal Son, he comes to his senses and realizes there is no joy in being separated from home and family. He approaches his brother in fear, not knowing the current state of Esau’s anger, only to be greeted with tears and embrace, with love and compassion. The crucial line comes when Jacob looks at last full in the face of his forgiving brother and says, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10b). Compassion, love, forgiveness become the very face of God. Rivalry is lost in reconciliation.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats can be challenging, even painful, if we read it all the way through to the judgment. But, it can be instructive to focus on the first part before the judgment. What can we learn from what is affirmed alone? “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” The blessed, in appropriate humility, are dumbfounded by the invitation. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” We all know the response. We learned it long ago in Sunday School. “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:31ff).
What struck me in reading this text this time was the phrase “these who are members of my family.” I hear that as naming the least as members of your family, my family, our family. The crucial thing is that we don’t dismiss anyone, including the least of these, from the family of God. To take a superior, judgmental attitude toward another is to take that attitude toward a sister or brother. It is rooted in ancient rivalry for love and attention, for favor and security, sibling rivalry as old as humankind. To offer compassion, care, forgiveness, welcome to one’s sister and brother is to see the face of God and the family resemblance therein. “…as you did it to one of the least of these who are your sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” Rivalry is subsumed in reconciliation.
Then the self-righteous biblical scholar, the one who knew the law so well, trying to save face under the piercing gaze of Jesus, tries to trap the teacher by asking, “Well, just who is my neighbor?” Most of us could recite the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. The religious leaders, whom we think ought to stop to help, take the legal way out. They manage to justify hurrying by, leaving the beaten man to bleed out by the side of the road. You can see the crowd, no fans of the religious establishment, shake their heads and hear them mutter their disapproval. Then, Jesus throws everyone a curve. Enter the Samaritan. Wait a minute! Did I hear correctly? Did he say Samaritan? What’s a blankety-blank Samaritan doing in this story? He’ll probably kick the poor victim over the cliff. History tells us the hatred ran that deep.
The crowd is astonished to hear that the Samaritan is the neighbor. The poor lawyer can’t even get the word out of his mouth. When Jesus asks, “Who is the neighbor in the story?” all he can manage to sputter is, “The one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:25ff). But what if we up the ante in this encounter? What if the question is reframed as “Who is my sister, my brother?” and the crowd is invited to consider the Samaritan as a sibling? Oh, my! That may be more than is tolerable. Still, if we are sisters and brothers in the family of God, isn’t that what Jesus is moving us toward? Where do we see the face of God in this tale? In our brother Samaritan who practices forgiveness, compassion and care, seeing the broken one at the side of the road as his own brother and treating him accordingly. Even ancient rivalry can be reconciled.
Finally there is Joseph and his brothers. I imagine we’ve all known a Joseph – a favored child who revels in the special treatment he receives, who has genuine gifts and is not at all reticent to let you know about them, who can’t understand why her siblings resent her and wish her ill. Well, Joseph’s older brothers have come to hate him so much they decide to kill him. But at the last minute they have a change of heart and sell him into slavery. Then they tell their father his favorite has been killed by a wild beast.
Years later, after a series of adventures, Joseph has risen to be the chief advisor to the Egyptian Pharoah. As he had dreamed, a famine comes to Canaan and his brothers find themselves in Egypt, pleading for their survival. Unknown to them, their brother, Joseph, controls their fate. Eventually the whole story comes to light, Joseph forgives his brothers, is reunited with his father and all seems healed. That is until old Jacob dies. There is an elaborate processional of Israelites and Egyptians who bear the body back to Canaan for burial.
However, in the closing verses, the brothers of Joseph suddenly find themselves not feeling so secure anymore. Maybe Joseph has just been good to them because of their father. Now that the old man is gone, are they certain that Joseph has forgiven them and will take care of them? Not really. Their guilt continues to eat away at them. So they approach Joseph with a concocted story that their father has given death bed instructions for him to care for of them. There’s no evidence that Jacob ever said this, but the brothers are desperately trying to cover all their bases. They recognize that Joseph has both justification and power for punishment.
To keep the drama going, Joseph does not give a straightforward answer. Instead, Joseph weeps. Are his tears for his brothers? For himself? Are they tears of forgiveness? Grief? Aching from his long years of painful separation? Accumulated anger at his brothers? Relief? In the end, I imagine some of all this and more was at play. Like Esau before him and Jesus after him, Jacob weeps over his brothers, both lost and found. In the enigmatic response that carries this story and our theme forward, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
There seems to be personal forgiveness that comes from Joseph, moving the situation from rivalry to reconciliation, “’…have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” But there is also a significant word about how God operates in the world. As Dan Buttry reminded us last week, it is a word about how God prefers restorative justice to the retributive sort. This word from and about God is good news for us.
Rivalry has come to be a way we commonly see and treat one another, whether we see one another as siblings or not. We compete and judge, we wrangle and fight, we oppress and war, and all too often we engage in these activities with a certain self-righteousness or sense of being favored or special. We fail to understand God as love, a vibrant, sustaining love that looks out over all creation, blessing it and calling it good. As children of that same God, created in God’s image and likeness, if we could look out with those eyes we might see the face of God reflected in all we encounter. We could learn to let go of rivalry and give ourselves over to the work of reconciliation. That is God’s plan, that we live in peace and harmony in one family of faith, the family of God. We can make other plans as Joseph’s brothers did but in the end God’s plan prevails. This does not mean that God ordained Joseph’s suffering so the brothers could learn a lesson about family togetherness, but, as the one who has suffered, Joseph has the right to turn his suffering over to God’s greater plan of reconciliation.
The love that binds us together is operative throughout creation and history. It is at work even in the midst of the most vicious rivalry and awful evil, drawing us ever back with cords of love toward that family in which we were made to live and love for all eternity. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together with love that sees beyond all rivalry and makes us all one in the family of God. Amen.