Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: Teach Us to Pray

"Teach Us to Pray"
Psalm 85; Luke 11: 1-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2016

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
and put away your indignation towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
so that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.
- Psalm 85

[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
- Luke 11: 1 - 13

Charles Schultz captured some poignant moments of real life through the eyes of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. One cartoon frames a conversation between Charlie Brown and his dear friend Lucy as he seeks a little life counseling. You remember Lucy - the neighborhood psychologist who likes to shake the can of loose change at her ten cents booth.

“Life is like a deck chair, Charlie.” She says. “On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they’ve been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they’re going.”

The doctor looks at Charlie, who now looks confused, and asks, “Which way is your deck chair facing?” Without hesitating, Charlie Brown replies in his gloomy voice, “I've never been able to get one unfolded.” [1]

I rarely meet someone who has not had some difficulty unfolding their deck chair of life. I have had my own struggles too – even wanting to throw that chair into the ocean.

But consider the chair in a theological sense…how do we unfold our spirituality or our prayer life? It gives us an amazing frame of reference to view the journey of life and faith, both where we have been and where we are going. Sometimes the journey gets dry or rough or painful or just plain confusing. If you have struggled to unfold your prayer life do not worry because you are not alone. We are all in good company with Charlie Brown and also with the disciples.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke the disciples saw and heard Jesus’ prayer life. When you follow a Rabbi you share a communal life every day. You get to really know someone when you live with them 24/7. The disciples learned Jesus’ every move. They saw Jesus teach, proclaim, heal, and reach out to the least. They also saw Jesus withdraw many times to quiet places to draw near to God. And oftentimes Jesus was within a stone’s throw from the disciples. And so one day as Jesus was praying in a certain place, one of the disciples asks the Rabbi to teach them to pray.

The only two gospels that share this story are Luke and Matthew. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 9-15). The prayer itself is longer and it is prefaced with a warning to not pray with a high piety but to have a humble trust that God knows our needs before we ask. Matthew’s version sounds more similar to the Lord’s Prayer we recite each week after our Prayers for the People.

But Luke’s Gospel is a bit different. It is simple and direct. It is prefaced with a theme of responding to God’s hospitality in Luke chapter 10. The more I read it and study it the more I wonder if the disciples were searching for the words to pray like the Rabbi. The goal of the disciple was to be like the Rabbi in every way. Maybe Luke is showing us how to unfold our prayers when we are taking steps to grow in our faith or even when we do not have the words, communally or individually.

Jesus gives us words to approach God in prayer. Jesus teaches his disciples and us that the Lord’s way of prayer is a spiritual posture. It confesses our need for a spiritual relationship with God. Christ invites us to place our wholehearted trust in his Father and ours to seek four things in prayer: a foundational relationship, kingdom living, daily provisions, and deliverance from anything that threatens our faith or trust in God’s daily presence.

The words Jesus prays are pregnant with meaning to bear new life into our spirits. The first words from Jesus’ lips are “Father, hallowed by your name” (verse 2). There is a sense of gratitude for who God is and what God does. Jesus had an intimate relationship with God and knew that God loved him even before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). At his baptism, Jesus prayed as the Holy Spirit anointed him for God’s purposes (Luke 3:21). And we are claimed and adopted through Christ as children of God (Ephesians 1:5).

Even as we seek an intimate relationship with God - this God is also holy, set apart, and worthy of our praise no matter what our circumstances entail. This God is so great because of a divine steadfast love in which we can one hundred percent depend on. This God is so great because God’s love sustains and provides for our needs. This God is so great because God’s love will never fail us. And so we too begin to unfold our prayer seeking this foundational relationship that Jesus claims us in.

As Jesus points to how great God is, he moves us to pray about kingdom living with the words, “Your kingdom come” (verse 2). Proclaiming these words was Jesus main message to a community who longed to know God was at work in the world (Luke 4:43). Jesus ushers in an upside-down kingdom which his mother Mary sung about. The Spirit moved Mary at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel to sing with a voice of conviction that God’s kingdom is coming through God’s Son. God’s kingdom brings mercy and strength, it scatters the proud, it lifts up the lowly, it feeds the hungry, it sends the rich away empty when God’s gifts are abused (Luke 1:51-53).

And so we claim the same voice of conviction as Jesus and Mary. No matter how unjust or torn life seems to be in our world or in our homes we are taught to continue praying for God’s kingdom to come. We are taught to pray with boldness that God’s kingdom will restore our brokenness by God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. We may not fully see it today, but we are to trust God’s righteousness will look down from the sky and the Lord will give what is good (Psalm 85: 11-12). And Jesus invites you and me to take God’s hand and join in this daily work of revealing glimpses of the kingdom.

As Jesus reminds us the kingdom will continue to unfold in God’s timing, he moves us to prayerfully lean into a deeper trust of receiving our daily provisions of bread and forgiveness (verses 3-4b). Jesus’ eyes were always opened to those who were lacking the bread of life. Jesus walked the streets to meet real needs. Jesus was also aware of the ways God helps to provide spiritual nourishment to prepare in doing God’s work, to make decisions, and to recharge the soul. Jesus would pray for all these things in his ministry (Luke 4:42-43; 6:12; 5:16).

Jesus also knew that the condition of human sin obstructs and limits our ability to nourish this gift of faith. Forgiveness is as much of a daily need and provision as bread is. The unconditional love of Christ strengthens us to tell God we are sorry even as we are forgiving others that have hurt us. For we we have already been loved, strengthened, and forgiven through Christ. The mystery of God’s will is that it is by God’s good pleasure to give us the bread of life and the gift of forgiveness (Ephesians 1: 7-9). Our prayer for these daily provisions unfolds a little more as we remember Jesus’ sacrificial love.

As Jesus reminds us that God sustains our spirits with daily provisions, he moves us to pray for deliverance, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” (verse 4c). Jesus knew about trials and temptations. He was tempted in the desert to stop relying on God (Luke 4: 1-13). He was in conflict with the religious authorities. As the shadow of the cross drew closer, Jesus told the disciples to pray that they might not come to the time of trial. And then Jesus took to his knees and began earnestly praying for his own (Luke 22: 40-41, 44).

And what I find most meaningful in Jesus’ prayer for deliverance is that he says to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

Any threat to our faith or our trust in God’s presence is scary. The trials that we endure test us to the very core. We may feel weak and waver in our faith as Peter did. But Jesus moves us to stand in his strength and pray for God to lead us by the right road. And when we fail, God’s grace is there to turn us back and restore us. If Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith to not fail, he prays that for us too.

Jesus moves us to encourage one another and stand in the strength of his words – the Lord’s Prayer – and persevere. The more we clothe ourselves with Christ to ask, search, and knock for a way to let go of the past, embrace the present, and reach towards the future then God will surely give the gift of Holy Spirit to us. And God’s Spirit promises to embrace us, sustain us, and guide us into God’s kingdom promises.

I once heard the author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor ask the question, “What is saving your life right now?” I find the question so thought provoking. Everyone has a different answer which makes the question to relatable. Try it and ask the question to someone this week and wait to be encouraged and even blessed by their answer.

But for now I will share with you what is saving my life recently. I find the quiet moments of reading Scripture save me. I do not claim to have any closer relationship to God than you do. Remember I have trouble unfolding that deck chair of life just as much as you do!

But to be still and listen for Scripture - like our texts from Psalm 85 and Luke 11 today. To listen for God’s Word to shape my words to talk with God; to listen for the Spirit read my own life and speak back to me – that is enough. That is saving me when I am experiencing the communal and personal cruise ship of life with you all– when I am rejoicing with you, when I am struggling with you, and when I am looking out at the churning waves with a quiet trust that God is listening.

Because in Jesus’ words I hear such a simple prayer to keep in the pocket of our hearts through it all:

Dear God,
Thank you for loving us as your daughters and sons.
Help us to see you in the world.
Give our bodies, minds, and hearts what they need to live and thrive.
Forgive us when we hurt you and help us to be forgiving those who hurt us.
Deliver us from anything that threatens our trust in you.

May it be so for each of us.

In the name of our Father, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced or Read for Sermon Preparation:

[1] Michael Yaconelli, “Messy Spirituality” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, 2007), p. 32.

New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VIII: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 194.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sermon: Choosing the Better Part

"Choosing the Better Part"
Psalm 15; Luke 10: 38 - 42 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2016

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
- Psalm 15

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ - Luke 10: 38-42

Martha and Mary. The sisters. These two ladies seem so easy to relate to. We see glimpses of their genuine relationship through the various gospel accounts. They shared a close relationship with each other and with their brother Lazarus. They were very good friends with Jesus. It was in their home that Jesus found a place of welcome and respite. We even see a bit of sibling rivalry here in Luke’s story. Martha tells Jesus to make her sister step up her game to help and properly welcome him as a guest. Martha must have had a bit of Southern charm in her, don’t you agree?

But here in Luke’s story I have a hard time elevating one sister’s behavior over the other. We have all heard it said before that we need to be more like Mary than Martha. But the sisters share two different sides of our very selves that we all can identify with, whether we are male or female. Martha enjoys doing for others. Mary enjoys just being still. The parallel of their differences is similar to that of extraverts and introverts. Extraverts get energy from being with other people while introverts get energy from being alone. We all have a bit of extravert and introvert in us. We may prefer one over the other. However, we have a need for both and on our best days we seek balancing the two in our daily living.

Martha and Mary allude to the two parts of our faith that inform one another as we seek to follow Christ. One part of our faith is more outward. It is the extension of hospitality from our hearts and hands through our ministries of care to others. It is what Martha was so deeply focused on as she welcomed Christ into her home as her neighbor, friend, and Lord. Martha set her eyes on the tasks of serving. The Greek word here for tasks is where we get the English word deacon and diaconate – or ministry of care. Martha sets her eyes on serving Christ and others with such care and with such faithfulness.

The other part of our faith is more inward. It is our ability to receive divine hospitality given by the very heart and hands of God. We receive God’s hospitality as spiritual direction from our Teacher and Lord. It is what Mary is so deeply focused on as she sits at the feet of Christ and listens to what he is saying to her.

Have you ever wondered just what Jesus was saying to Mary that caused her to hang on Jesus’ every word?

It has been a real question for me this week. Throughout Luke’s tenth chapter Jesus says a lot to his disciples.

As the chapter begins he sends seventy followers out on God’s mission. Jesus shares the realities of the hard work that lies ahead: “The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). Do you hear Jesus implying that there are times the disciples will feel overwhelmed by thinking there is not enough joint effort? Doesn't that sound familiar to the story of Martha and Mary?

Jesus goes on to say: “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10: 8-9). Do you hear Jesus imply to go out and receive hospitality in the homes you visit but also extend God’s hospitality with ministries of care? That sounds familiar too.

Jesus told the disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10: 23-24). Do you hear Jesus implying how the disciples are being trained to pay attention to God’s divine instruction? Do you hear and see a connection?

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to the lawyer and the disciples (Luke 10: 27-28). Just last week we heard Jesus imply that if we love God and neighbor through the virtue of compassion then we will truly live by having an active life in the kingdom of God.

And the continuous thread seems to be on following God’s mission of hospitality in a prayerful and yet prudent way. “Luke’s Gospel uses hospitality as a social context for the spread of the Christian message” (Mikeal C. Parsons, Working Preacher)

I cannot help but wonder as the ceramic pots and wooden spoons were clinging and clanging in the kitchen if Jesus was taking the opportunity to disciple Mary - and Martha too - on the beautiful gift of God’s hospitality. We hear Martha trying to faithfully extend it and we see Mary is trying to faithfully receive it. “Blessed are those who hear and see what you hear and see” (Luke 10:23) In order for us to follow Jesus’ example of serving others we must also taste and experience God’s spiritual goodness, God's hospitality. We must make room to empty ourselves and cleanse our palates so that we might be filled with God’s fruit of the Spirit to share in service with others.

Teresa of Avila is one of my heroines from church history. She was one of the first female reformers of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. She was the founder of the Carmelite Monastery where monks and nuns, respectively, would work the land in spiritual community as well as devote their entire lives to God in service and prayer. Teresa knew firsthand the life of faith was embraced by receiving and extending God’s hospitality. This is what Teresa says of Martha and Mary:

Seek prayer and engage in prayer not for your own pleasure but to gain the strength to serve God. We must be like both Martha and Mary if we are to show true hospitality to God.[1]

Jesus wants his disciples to prayerfully focus on what we see and hear from God’s hospitality. In order to do so we must seek to balance service to others with sitting at Jesus’ feet. We cannot love our neighbor in God’s hospitable grace without taking time to love God and receive God’s hospitable grace ourselves. We cannot know which steps lead to an active life in the kingdom of God without taking the time to listen to for Jesus’ spiritual direction.

Some days all the work that we pour our faith into seems more of a distraction than true service to others. Even as we try to be the church and plug ourselves into ministries of care where our gifts intersect the needs around us, the needs of the world press in and overwhelm us. We ask ourselves – how can I possibly help to change the world by myself? How can I extend God’s hospitality with my own efforts to make a difference? How can one act of compassion be exponential in a world that is hurting so much? Who will help me? Who will help us? Who will share our interest to be the active body of Christ? Because even Jesus said the harvest is plenty but the laborers are few (Luke 10:2).

It is in these moments of worry and anxiety that we literally feel pulled apart. And it is in these “Martha moments” that it is so very important for us to seek to balance service with stillness. We must claim these “Mary moments” to be still and listen for God’s Spirit and attune ourselves to that very still and very small voice. A ministry colleague of mine said just this week, “Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out God’s grace to others. Repeat as needed.”

The core truth of breathing in and breathing out God’s grace, God's hospitality is this: God’s hospitality is relational and it always seeks a posture of grace that is reciprocal. This is why the command to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves is so important. It hinges upon the reciprocity of God’s gracious and compassionate hospitality.

As a result, the life of faith involves both intentional action and prayerful reflection. Consider your own journey in following our Rabbi and Lord. How are you doing in seeking the balance between action and reflection, service and stillness, mission and prayer?

Maybe you are knee deep in the harvest and feeling overwhelmed. Christ says blessed are those who hear and see. So listen and look for Christ guiding you to focus less on the distant field and focus more upon your immediate circle of influence where your heart and hands might touch the lives of others - or even just one life.

Maybe the Spirit is nudging you to go out and build new relationships with a different area of the community. Listen and look for opportunities where Christ may be guiding you to receive and extend hospitality on the front porch, at the post office, in the grocery store. The gift of welcome is often found in very ordinary and surprising places if we are open to the Spirit’s leading.

Maybe you have been listening and hanging on Jesus’ every word for a while now and you are seeking the courage to go and put the gift of these words into action. Listen and look for the ordinary intersections to put faith in motion in authentic ways.

The wonder and awe of following in the footsteps of the Rabbi is for us to discern when to choose the better part. We know when to choose the better part as we seek to balance service and stillness. Listen to what Jesus is saying to disciple you and me. Look for the ways Jesus is building us up as the body of Christ.

A life of faithful discipleship is to both receive and extend God’s hospitable grace to spread the gospel message. For in Jesus Christ the gospel in on the move and we are to move with it. May it be so for us.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:
Artwork, "Martha and Mary," by He Qi
[1] "A Little Daily Wisdom: A Year with Saint Teresa of Avila" (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2011), devotion entry June 17

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Do This and You Will Live

"Do This and You Will Live"
Deuteronomy 30: 9-14; Luke 10: 25-37
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2016

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the Lord your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
- Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

- Luke 10: 25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is more than helping the one stranded on the roadside. Don’t get me wrong, helping others is always a good thing. Many of us have been personally indebted to the kindness of strangers. But Luke’s Gospel flexes some scriptural muscle. Jesus’ story moves us to reflect upon the Christian journey and our guide or compass being the Greatest Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). If we are to truly follow Christ’s compass then it will ultimately do two things. There is no doubt the compass will lead us along life’s rocky path, testing our Christian ethics. The compass will also reveal how we find true life in the kingdom of God.

Luke sets the stage by sharing the lawyer’s motivation for asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer, an expert of Moses’ Law (the first five books of the Bible), wanted to justify himself or to declare himself guiltless. And in true Jesus fashion the lawyer’s question is answered with a parable – a story that intersects ordinary life with a hidden truth.

The road leading from Jerusalem to Jericho is a dangerous path that stretches 17 miles. It descends nearly 3,300 feet with many tricky twists and turns [1]. This winding and narrow path held many hiding places to camouflage bandits and thieves. And so a man – who could have been any one of us – was walking along the road when he fell to the hands of robbers and was left for dead. Both the priest and Levite pass by the man in the ditch. They were probably more concerned about keeping their hands clean than rolling up their sleeves to tend to one in need.

But the Samaritan stops in his tracks. The seat of his emotions is moved by compassion and he lifts up this man like his own brother in empathetic care. The Samaritan took the time to see and bind his brother’s wounds. The Samaritan made the effort to carry his brother from harm’s way to a more secure place.

The Samaritan was not who the lawyer or the disciples expected in Jesus’ story. They expected one of their own, an Israelite. It was counter-cultural and even scandalous for Jesus to name a Samaritan as the one who would point to the example of living out the Greatest Commandment. The Samaritan already knew the pain of being passed by. He was marginalized as an outcast by the people of Israel because of cultural differences. The historical division between the Israelites and the Samaritans was a long standing one. And despite these divisions, the Samaritan chose to look upon the stranger in the ditch with love and not hate. The Samaritan was a neighbor because he chose to act out of compassion and love.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan haunts me. I think about the one who was left for dead and exactly who it was that extended compassion. The last time I preached this text was three years ago (it was a completely different sermon) when the jury was making a final decision regarding the death of Trayvon Martin. It was the lectionary text that Sunday. It is the lectionary text today. And this week the nation has been in shock learning the details of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. This weekend our nation has been in shock with the shootings of the police officers in Dallas, Texas at a peaceful protest.

The black community is crying out with tears of lament, tears of compassion, tears of suffering with one another - for all these that have fallen to the hands of racial injustice. And the black community is waiting for the white community and the Church Universal to listen and learn from their experience of what it is like to be black. The black community is waiting for you and me to stand with them in solidarity, to extend compassion, and to seek hope together.

Rev. Denise Anderson is one of the newly elected Co-Moderators for the 222nd General Assembly. She is a black pastor in our predominately white denomination. This week she challenged all white Presbyterian clergy with these words: “Talk to other white people about your racism, how you were socialized, and engage with people of color.”

While I find Anderson’s words encouraging and even liberating, they also terrify me.

My first exposure to the sin of racism was as a child hearing an extended family member calling blacks by a derogative word. I am grateful my parents denounced that language but I lament that I still hear that word in my mind. Growing up I learned to treat all people with respect but throughout my life I have heard society’s narrative stereotyping people of color as not being smart enough and being suspicious. I have close black friends and neighbors who are brilliant and beyond trustworthy but when I am alone I question my safety as a black man passes me by. I have loved learning about different ethnicities and cultures since high school, but I recognize that I have this sinful racial prejudice within me and I wrestle with it.

I try to learn about the experiences of my black sisters and brothers because I will never fully know what it is like to walk in their shoes because of my white privilege. I teach my children to show respect and compassion to everyone and to appreciate human diversity. It gives me hope that my children have close friends who are of different races and nationalities. We invite these friends into our home and I hope and pray for the day when all our differences are more appreciated than feared.

The Greatest Commandment to love God and to love neighbor as self closes the distance between our hurts and differences because compassion is that powerful. God completely embodied the word “compassion” in drawing near to us in the person of Jesus Christ by suffering alongside us, by suffering for us, and ultimately dying for us. Therefore God’s command to love seeks to break down the walls of hostility that stem from places of our misunderstanding, sin, and judgment.

Compassion moves us to love like God does. It makes room in our hearts to feel one another’s hurts and to love the image of God in others. God’s love is a compass that guides us to approach our fallen sisters or brothers of color because their hurt does indeed affect us. God’s love urges us to resist passing by and resist being silent and to humbly do better. The Greatest Commandment is God’s heartbeat that pulses with a divine will for love and reconciliation. When we follow the direction of this compass to love God and to love neighbor as self, then you and I will live.

Do this and you and I will live because we will experience God’s gift of life which is to see our shared common humanity in one another. Do this and you will live because striving to see Christ in one another is what it looks like to have an active life in the kingdom of God.

The text from Deuteronomy says, “Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it far away…The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30: 11,14).

Surely to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor is not too hard because Jesus Christ embodies God’s ultimate desire and way of life for us. The Spirit is always ready and present to guide us in Jesus’ teaching which is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And yet...and yet when Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robber?” the lawyer cannot even utter the word, “Samaritan.” Did you catch that in reading the text? The lawyer can only find words to say “The one - that other one - who showed mercy.”

If we are honest I think we can see - and I know we should see - a bit of ourselves in the lawyer’s response. I know this text convicts me personally. The lawyer creates a thin space for us to see our own biases and prejudices and sin even as we hope to do better and be more Christ like. We do not want to hear this but God's Word convicts us.

Luke’s text moves us to a place of humble confession. We cannot use our faith to justify ourselves as guiltless for we all have difficulties living out God’s love. We all have difficulties loving our neighbor who has a different ethnicity or even religion than ours. Despite the challenging condition of human sin to live by the Rule of Love, we must do better. Unity takes a lot of intentionality, reflection, and grace.

There is still much to be done in our specific community, in our country, and in our world in this ministry of reconciliation. Racial and religious reconciliation are hard to talk about. However, reconciliation is the heartbeat of God’s will and it is the pulse of the gospel. As Paul says in 2nd Corinthians, “God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us because in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

June 22, 2016 the 222nd General Assembly voted to adopt the Belhar Confession into part of our constitution, the Book of Confessions. Our creeds and confessions affirm what we believe about God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. They are also like snapshots of the greater Reformed church family in specific periods of history naming what the Church Universal is called to do in response to God’s Word.

Belhar was written in 1986 as the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa lifted her voice in the choir of the Church Universal. Belhar confesses the Church’s purpose to be an agent of God’s reconciliation in order to fully live into God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ. The sin of apartheid threatened the integrity of the gospel and the Church by causing great racial injustice in South Africa.

As Reformed Christians we identify with the hard realities of racial injustice within our own American history. We continue to seek a posture of humility and a resolve for justice as the body of Christ to bring healing and unity for all. The Belhar Confession moves through three articles and we will affirm our faith with a portion of it this morning. Listen to these opening words of the first two articles in light of our biblical texts today:

We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects
and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the
beginning of the world and will do to the end.
We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints
called from the entire human family.
We believe
• that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the
community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus
Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet
simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one
which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.

I pray we would go out today seeking a posture of humility and compassion to be a neighbor like the Samaritan, to bear God’s message of reconciliation, and to build up one another so that we might attain it.

I pray we will risk the time and effort to reflect on the hard conversation of race by considering our own difficult journeys, by reaching across the aisles in our church to share our stories with each other in humility, and by crossing the streets in our community to speak to our neighbors of color with love.

When faith seeks understanding it makes a way forward to stand in the strength of compassion. For if we do this then we will live.

May it be so. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Artwork, "The Good Samaritan," by He Qi (2001)

[1] The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, "Volume VIII: Luke, John" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), p. 189.