The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.
--John 12:8 RSV
It was early in my career as an ordained minister and I had just preached a sermon about economic injustice to the “fiscal Republican” crowd at the church I served in a Wall Street bedroom community on Long Island. Afterward, a member who happened to be a great guy engaged with me in a friendly manner. We talked about my sermon in which I said basically to be Christian means working to eliminate poverty. He pointed out to me that Jesus himself said, “The poor you always have with you,” meaning, he felt, it’s an inevitable law of the universe that some will be poor so why bother? I was flabbergasted. It was the first time, but far from the last time, I would hear this verse used to suggest Jesus wanted us to NOT care about poor people. It’s a bit of bad biblical interpretation that politicians, pundits and snobs like to throw around.
I bring up this verse today because it is Holy Wednesday. In Christian tradition, Wednesday night of Holy Week focuses upon Jesus being anointed at Bethany by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (NOT Mary Magdalene as tradition has confused the various Marys of the Gospels—go read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and he will explain it to you). In John’s version (Matthew, Mark and Luke all have different details), Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, Judas objects (because he wanted the money himself according to the narrator) and Jesus explains Mary was preparing him for his burial. Then he drops his words about “the poor.”
Yesterday, I shared some background on why Jesus became angry enough to disrupt the merchants at the Jerusalem temple—the exploitation of the poor. Now, here Jesus is the next day talking about “the poor” again. It’s almost as if Jesus cared about poor people and wasn’t promoting a private individualistic piety as so many Christians think! I bring “the poor” up not because I’m such a great social activist or even particularly generous but because Jesus won’t stop talking about poor people even the days before his impending death. It matters, because Christianity has made Jesus’ teachings and ministry about an otherworldly ticket to heaven rather than about concrete acts of love in the here and now.
Recently, I’ve come across a sermon the writer Kurt Vonnegut preached on a Palm Sunday. I’m sure folks better educated than I are well aware of it, but it’s new to me. Vonnegut described himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic” which in my book is better than self-identified Christians who ignore Christ’s teachings. In his sermon, the author chose to focus on the verse containing the phrase “the poor you always have with you.” His interpretation is the same as my interpretation, and if Christ’s death and resurrection are to mean anything in the here and now, then I think this matters greatly if one wishes to follow Jesus. Here’s some of what Vonnegut had to say:
Whatever it was that Jesus really said to Judas was said in Aramaic, of course-and has come to us through Hebrew and Greek and Latin and archaic English. Maybe He only said something a lot like, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me." Perhaps a little something has been lost in translation. And let us remember, too, that in translations jokes are commonly the first things to go.
I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshipping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation "For the poor always ye have with you."
I am speaking mainly of my youth in Indianapolis, Ind. No matter where I am and how old I become, I still speak of nothing but my youth in Indianapolis, Ind. Whenever anybody out that way began to worry a lot about the poor people when I was young, some eminently respectable Hoosier, possibly an uncle or an aunt, would say that Jesus Himself had given up on doing much about the poor. He or she would paraphrase John 12, verse 8: "The poor people are hopeless. We'll always be stuck with them."
The general company was then free to say that the poor were hopeless because they were so lazy or dumb, that they drank too much and had too many children and kept coal in the bathtub, and so on. Somebody was likely to quote Kim Hubbard, the Hoosier humorist, who said that he know a man who was so poor that he owned 22 dogs. And so on.
If those Hoosiers were still alive, which they are not, I would tell them now that Jesus was only joking, and the He was not even thinking much about the poor.
. . .
If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.
"Judas, don't worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I'm gone."
Shall I regarble it for you? "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me."
My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.
As we look towards the death and resurrection of Jesus, let us remember that Jesus wasn’t offering us just a heavenly afterlife but a way to help people escape Hell on Earth so that God’s will might be done “on Earth as it is in heaven.”
Grace and Peace,
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple,
and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
--Matthew 21:12 NRSV
Some of us grew up with an angry Jesus ready to show up at any moment to fight the Battle of Armageddon. Others of us grew up with a kind Jesus who was the Good Shepherd always pictured cuddling with little lambs. The Jesus I grew up with was kind of schizophrenic, both angry and kind, depending on the mood of the preacher I was listening to at any given time. When I realized there were options about what to believe about Jesus, I definitely identified more with the kind one, yet I’m aware there is a danger in doing so. One can end up with a Jesus so kind he is passive and inoffensive. This Jesus doesn’t demand much of us, and so we turn to him only when we have need but never when he has need of us.
If you’re like me, focused on Jesus’ radical service, inclusion and love, then his violence on Holy Monday is a shock. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus went to the Jerusalem temple on Monday of Holy week and “cleansed” the temple, driving out the money changers and merchants selling animals for sacrifice. Geesh, Jesus, what happened to loving your enemy and turning the other cheek?
When we understand more of the historical context, Jesus’ actions make a little more sense, although they still may shock those of us in the “kind Jesus” crowd. The Jerusalem temple was the center of first century Jewish religious life, the place connecting heaven and earth. There was no way to be a faithful Jew and neglect one’s relationship to the temple. Faithful Jews were expected to offer sacrifices at the temple for important life events, but it was impractical for people who travelled from a distance to the temple to bring livestock with them. So, the temple began offering one-stop shopping where one could show up and buy an animal for the priests to sacrifice.
This “convenience” was more complicated than it might seem. The Ten Commandments forbade graven images, and that included most coins which had Roman deities or emperors claiming divinity on them. In a holy place like the temple, special coins without such images could be exchanged for the normal currency (sort of like a currency exchange at an international airport). The “money changers” charged a healthy fee for their work with a big cut going to the temple officials themselves. Then one had to buy animals to sacrifice which were also up charged to maximize profit and enrich temple officials further. If you were a lower economic class person—and most people were in first century Israel—you were exploited by the rich to carry out your religious obligations. Some scholars think most of the wealth of Israel in that time was located at the temple, and it functioned more like a bank than a house of worship.
Understood in this light, Jesus’ act of “cleansing” the temple is outrage over the use of religion to exploit poor people. A strong word of warning needs to be stated here—this Gospel story has been used for centuries to promote the falsehood that Jews are greedy bankers who exploit people. Down through the centuries, through massacres, pogroms, the Holocaust, The Merchant of Venice, and conspiracy theories about the faked document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this text has been used as a weapon rather than as a tool for justice. 99% of the Jews in Jesus’ day had nothing to do with the temple’s financial exploitation of the poor. A number of first century Jewish groups recognized the corruption of the temple and sought ways to be faithful without it, such as the Pharisees we see in the Gospels and the Essenes who possibly wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus was not alone in his rejection of this kind of religious manipulation.
The point of this text is not to condemn some other religion than our own but rather to guard against using religion for our own ends. Besides, once Christianity became a state religion, if not before, it became the one who exploited the poor in God’s name. Christian history is one long story of rich rulers and clerics using God to enrich themselves.
Can we deal with a Jesus who gets angry at the exploitation of the poor in God’s name? Christians who want an angry Jesus are obsessed with end times nonsense instead of injustice in the here and now. On the other hand, Christians who want a kind Jesus don’t want him meddling in their pocketbooks. Jesus seems to confound both groups of Christians.
The Gospels and scholars agree that it was Jesus’ actions at the temple which directly led to him being executed. Caring for the poor rarely makes you popular or rich. This Gospel story invites us to think about unjust laws, regulations and rules which enrich the richest and take away opportunities for those on the bottom of the economic ladder to climb upward. Most of the time, these unjust laws, regulations and rules are created and passed by people who claim to be Christian but who obviously don’t get angry about the same things as Jesus.
Similarly, the prophets of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” peddle a brand of Christianity that enriches themselves at the expense of their flocks. On TV, the internet, and social media, they exploit the gullible and the desperate in Jesus’ name. Since they are usually the most visible Christian voices in media, it is no wonder younger generations who know no other kind of Christianity run from it. If more Christians were angry about what angered Jesus, would those who reject organized religion stop and take notice?
I like my non-offensive Jesus because I’m a comfortable middle class suburban guy. I feel sure if my life weren’t so insulated from the economic pain so many experience, then I would share Jesus’ anger.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Day and night they never stop saying:
“ ‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’ b
who was, and is, and is to come.”
We have arrived at Holy Week, the time of triumph and defeat and final victory, holy is the lamb that was slain and now lives again.
As we have travelled these last 40 days and built up to this minute, we have been reflective. It has been a time to take stock and to lean into the Lord. Hopefully, it has been an opportunity to stand firm on the rock of salvation.
Today, as Jesus would have been making His way to the cross, let us join in the journey. We have learned to “dwell” in Him, now let us take up our crosses and walk beside Him.
It will be uncomfortable. There is no shame in fearing the pain and the hard work ahead, but we have the promise of all creation that it will be worth our labor. This is the week where we finally declare our allegiance to Christ and begin the good work, He has set out for us.
For too long we have cried out “what can we do”? Now we know. We must give ourselves to the poor and abandoned, not just in word, but in our deeds. We no longer just add a little cash to the box and walk away with a clear conscious. We begin working beside the oppressed. We put our feet into motion and use our hands, mouths and talents to spread the word that God’s kingdom has come. And in God’s kingdom there is justice for all people.
We begin to walk, with Jesus, the road of servanthood for all our brothers and sisters. No longer are there racial divides or political divides. When we take up the cross of Jesus, we bridge all things that divide and work to become one people who praise and worship the Lord Almighty daily, singing; Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!
And we are given the promise that He is coming again. We are assured that the day is coming when all eyes will be dried, and no pain will exist, and we will be one with the Lord.
Holy week has arrived and through the pain there is joy.
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn--
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Psalms 98:4 – 6
Let us now fulfill our roles as servants and take to the streets and shout from the roof tops that the Lord has come, and we are redeemed. Let us lift up our brothers and sisters and share with them in our redemption.
A prayer for Holy Week:
Lord we praise You! You have come to Jerusalem and in extension to all of us. You have given Your body and blood that we may be redeemed. Now Lord, we answer Your call to be Your servants.
Lord as we open our hearts, make us aware of how we can be servants to those around us. Open our eyes to see the situations that You have set before us where we can serve others fully. Let our kindness not be ordinary, but to become extraordinary so that You are glorified through our actions.
Guide us sweet Spirit, providing the words, actions and selflessness necessary to be true servants of the Lord. Grant us this day the joy of serving another human being as Christ served. Amen
Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he
said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven
is my brother and sister and mother.”
--Matthew 12:48-40 NRSV
I love the American version of the TV show The Office. I watched it occasionally when it originally aired on NBC 2005-2013. I was a new parent then and couldn’t make appointments for TV shows (Tivo and DVR’s hadn’t hit the market yet). It was when the show started streaming on Netflix that I really watched it and fell in love with it. Now I listen to two different podcasts hosted by the show’s cast members that talk about the making of the show. Apparently, I’m not alone, because according to The New Yorker in 2018 alone The Office streamed for over 46 billion minutes on Netflix! Younger generations love it too. My teenagers begged me to watch it with them, which is amazing not only because they wanted me to do anything with them but also because they had even heard of a show that aired before smartphones were invented. Why is this show so loved?
If by some chance you’ve missed The Office, here’s a rundown. The show began as a short-lived series in the UK (14 episodes) about a paper company’s employees in a boring suburb of London being filmed by a documentary film crew. The boss played by Ricky Gervais was a needy non-PC pest to his employees who eked out a living by barely tolerating their boss. The UK version was making fun of a kind of reality TV show populer there, but before reality TV took over the airwaves in the US.
The US version also takes place in a paper company office but this time in working class Scranton, PA. The then pre-movie star Steve Carrell played the needy non-PC pest of a boss and the cast were largely unknown when it started. It kept its documentary feel and what made it remarkable at the time was how humdrum and everyday the action was, at least for the early seasons. It resembled life at a real office only with wackier characters--depending on the level of wackiness at one’s non-TV show job.
My own philosophy of TV sit-coms is they are all about families--families by blood/adoption or by situation. Most of them are about families--think the Cleavers, the Huxtables (pre-Cosby’s rape convictions), the Keatons, the Conners, etc. The situational families were people thrown together by life, usually jobs, who come to love each other as family--think The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Murphy Brown and Friends. The Office is in the latter category.
I can’t speak for other generations, but I know as a member of Generation X--the first generation where divorce became the norm--my generation grew up looking for family we didn’t have at home. Friends of mine who are LGBTQ people tell me how after being rejected by their families they had to choose and create families made out of friends who would accept them. Now, I would guess there are plenty of people out there who recognize their need for family for all sorts of reasons. In The Office, you see how people thrown together by their jobs grow to care about and support each other despite how irritated they are by one another.
My whole life I’ve grown up in churches who described themselves as “families.” Over the decades I’ve experienced that often churches are at best dysfunctional families and at worst abusive ones. Nonetheless, I think part of the reason I felt called to be a minister is because in spite of the pain I have experienced from some congregations, I grew up feeling that church was a place where people cared about me, knew me and helped call out what was best inside of me. I had lots of adoptive grandparents and adoptive aunts and uncles who cared for me and taught me about God’s love. Yes, I’ve let go a lot of the bad theology I learned growing up, but I have held onto the truth they taught me in word and action--the truth that God loves me.
Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when he offers harsh words about his own family who think he’s gone crazy. If you’ve ever felt misunderstood or rejected by your family, Jesus knows how you feel. Jesus understood that sometimes we have to choose and create our families when our families by blood/adoption can’t live out what a family should be. So he said, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus intended for the church to be a family for people who had none. That’s why the metaphor of family fills the New Testament. Churches are made up of people, and oftentimes people screw up what it means to do the will of our heavenly parent. It’s good to know that the family-making Spirit of God isn’t limited only to churches. Whether they are religious or not, wherever there are groups of people who do the will of God by creating communities of love, the Spirit is at work. As the theme song to one situational family sit-com sang, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.” Everyone deserves that kind of family whether it is by blood/adoption, church or even at the office.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Throughout my career in ministry, I’ve asked the congregations I serve, “What do you want to do?” By this question, I’m actually asking, “What do you feel called to do?” or maybe better phrased, “Who do you feel called to be?” In response, I’ve received a lot of answers that usually boil down to something like “We want to be an intergenerational church that attracts young families with children” or “We want to be a church that welcomes all people.” I’ve learned, unfortunately, that these kinds of answers reveal more about what church people think they should say rather than what they really feel. Most of the time, I’ve seen that it doesn’t really matter what church folks say to answer my questions. In time, their actions will reveal what they want to do or not. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question.
I wonder what answer I would get if I asked the question, “What do you NOT want to do?”
What I’ve seen in church life is that an increasingly older membership is usually tired, been there and done that. They’ve served on church boards and committees, taught Bible studies and Sunday School, and they just don’t want to do it anymore. They may not be able to admit it, but their feelings show through their refusal to do any of these things any longer. The problems come, however, when these folks still expect these same old activities to keep going on but no longer wish to lead them. Once upon a time, the next generation would take up the mantle of all these roles and older folks got to “retire” from church leadership. Those days are gone. Younger generations want something different out of church, if they want church at all.
So, I’m wondering why church folk don’t just admit what they don’t want to do any longer? Once that’s out in the open, the next step is to stop doing what you no longer want to do. If that’s already the case by attrition rather than by intention, the step after that is to stop feeling bad about this reality and stop complaining about how stuff no longer happening that you in truth no longer want to do.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some business for churches that has to go on—paying the bills, keeping up the building, etc. But that’s not really the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m really asking, “What would happen if church was no longer something that felt like a burden, a chore or one more item on your to-do list?” What would happen then?
For those of us who grew up without a choice whether we would go to church or not, we may have never stopped to ask, “Do I really want to do this church thing? If so, why? If not, why not?” When church was a thing good people who wanted to be good citizens of their communities did, one did not ask such questions? Church was and maybe still is like flavorless oatmeal. You swallow it and whether you want to eat it or not is beside the point—“you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Maybe that’s why our children and grandchildren have opted out of church—they realized they had a choice in the matter and wanted something else.
If church folks are willing to honestly answer the question, “What do you NOT want to do?” then they might be able to honestly answer my original question, “What do you want to do?” No, really, what do you want to do? I don’t mean that in a selfish, egocentric and superficial kind of way that says church is all about you and what you want—that doesn’t sound much like the Gospel to me. I’m talking about the deeper questions of “What makes life worth living to you?” and “What matters most in life?” Let’s talk about doing that kind of stuff instead of giving well-meaning but dishonest answers about what we really don’t want to do anymore.
What would church be like if we better spent the energy we currently spend bemoaning the fact that things aren’t like they used to be?
What if we could feel something other than shame that we aren’t doing “what we ought to do” or “what we should do” when it comes to church?
What would church be like if all of our energy was spent on things we actually want to do that bring joy and meaning to life?
I’m willing to bet church would look and feel different.
Vaccinations are happening, but we still aren’t back to pre-Covid life. It’s not too late to start thinking differently and being different when it comes to church. We can think about all the stuff we have traditionally done at Park Hill Christian Church and let go of the stuff we haven’t wanted to do for a long time. We can come back and make church something we want to be a part of and want to sacrifice for.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus Christ isn’t interested in followers that only complain and feel shame about not doing the things that nobody wants to do anymore.
I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about wanting his followers to experience joy and abundant life.
What in the world might that look like here and now when it comes to church?
The first step is honestly answering the question, “What do you NOT want to do?”
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
--Philippians 4:8 NRSV
Back in the day when I still watched the evening news on one of the three broadcast networks, I recall each 30-minute program basically breaking down into about 12 minutes of commercials, 15 minutes of headline news that was typically all negative, and a final 2-3 minute story that was positive. (I assume this is still the case?) This final feel-good story was sort of like an after-dinner mint. It was a palate cleanser, so you didn’t leave the broadcast feeling bad after watching all the “serious” news.
Today it seems like the non-stop news updates on our phones, news stories shared on social media and 24-hour cable news channels have left us only with the bad taste in our mouths. Even the after dinner mint of good news is difficult to find. In my social media feeds, I’ve seen this non-stop consumption of bad news described with the term “doomscrolling,” as in continuing to scroll through our social media unable to stop taking in the negative. Instead of merely being informed about what goes on in our society or learning enough to do something positive in order to make the world a better place, “doomscrolling” amounts to a fixation on the negative for no real healthy purpose.
It turns out there may be a reason for our doomscrolling. This morning the New York Times had some interesting news about media coverage of the last few years. A research study of national US media found it overwhelmingly negative when compared to other Western media. The study didn’t offer a conclusive reason for this negativity but did note that media outlets seemed to be giving consumers what they want. News articles shared tended to be almost exclusively negative. Most journalists, the piece noted, were less concerned with consumer demand than with trying to expose the truth that politicians, celebrities and powerbrokers want to hide. Yet, its author admitted, “our healthy skepticism can turn into reflexive cynicism, and we end up telling something less than the complete story.” Media consumers who want “the complete story” may have to work hard to find positive news to balance out the negative.
Minister and writer Vince Amlin shares about well-meaning Christians overwhelmed by the deluge of bad news:
Most of us believe that being informed citizens and compassionate churchgoers means faithfully taking our daily dose of world tragedy. The results are predictably toxic. Bad news piles up until we feel paralyzed with powerlessness.
I get this. Any who wish to follow Jesus need to avoid denying just how bad the world can often be, but if we only focus on the bad news, we do not see the full story of what God is doing in our world. In a culture apparently obsessed with bad news, we need to be on our guard against doomscrolling.
The word “gospel” literally means “good news,” but maybe we have domesticated the “good news” into a religious formula that amounts only to a ticket to heaven rather than a worldview. In order to remain faithful to God’s demands of justice, peace, mercy and love, we cannot afford to give into despair. Despair, or worse indifference, accomplishes nothing in terms of making this world a better place. Instead, we must commit ourselves to looking for the good news of where God is at work in our world, so we are inspired to join in. This requires us to heed the Apostle Paul’s encouragement “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The next time you find yourself doomscrolling walk away from the phone, tablet, computer or TV and focus on the blessings you have, the people you love and the good things of God constantly happening all around you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted
up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
--John 3:14-15 NRSV
I haven’t been able to read any of the retrospectives chronicling one year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Living with the pressure, stress and confusion of the past year has been difficult enough that I don’t wish to turn back and reflect upon it. Yet, as is the case with all pain, I know the time will come when I need to take stock of all that has happened since this pandemic began. Neither denying pain nor wallowing in it offers a healthy way out of it but looking at one’s pain, when energy exists to do so, allows pain to be our teacher.
Over the past two Sundays, I’ve been preaching out of the Gospel of John and if you were able to track what I’ve been saying (a big IF sometimes, I know, given who the preacher is), you have heard me mention that John’s Gospel presents a different understanding of Jesus’ death than elsewhere in the New Testament. Rather than seeing Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice offered for human sin, a means of conquering evil or as Jesus being our substitute and taking the punishment due us for our sins (the most prominent theological understandings of Jesus’ death—not all of them are actually found in the Bible), John presents Jesus’ death as a universe-changing moment for humanity to look at its own pain and turn away from what causes it.
In John 3, Jesus references a story from the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) from Numbers 21. It’s a weird one that I was never taught in Sunday School. In it, once again the Israelites in the desert wilderness complain against God, even though God miraculously rescued them from slavery and continues to provide for their needs. So, snakes come upon their camp and start killing people with poisonous bites. God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and hoist it up on a long pole. Anyone bit by a snake, should look up at the bronze serpent and they will be saved from death. Why an image of a snake? Why not a pill or a vaccine or just make the snakes go away? Perhaps, God wanted the people to remember what bit them and why. Their refusal to trust God, despite God’s continued care for them resulted in poisonous snakes. They need a reminder of what caused the threat to their lives and who saved them from it.
Jesus says in John 3 that just like that bronze snake, he will be lifted up. By “lifted up” he is referring to his inevitable death “lifted up” on a cross and his inevitable ascension “lifted up” to heaven after his resurrection. Just like with the bronze serpent on a tall pole, people get to look upon Jesus on the cross and see the pain of this world and why it occurs. On the cross, humanity gets to see the violence, deception, betrayal, self-serving politics, oppressive religion, torture, derision and abuse inflicted upon the most innocent victim ever, in sum all the ways we humans damage one another, ourselves, creation itself and even God. Then people get to look at Jesus lifted up to heaven resurrected and whole in order to see that God’s healing and redeeming love is greater than all the pain we cause.
Once we see the pain of our world and ourselves and then see a way beyond it, we are changed. We become people no longer intent upon a way of destruction but rather people intent upon God’s way of love. We may choose God’s way of love half-heartedly and imperfectly, but nonetheless we are changed. Looking at Christ’s pain—which is also our pain--allows pain to be our teacher, so that transformation can happen.
Moments when we can look at our pain are moments when we look at the snake that bit us or look at the Cross and its depravity. Such moments allow us to learn from past self-inflicted mistakes, heal from past abuses inflicted upon us and recover from the toll this life can take upon each of us. We discover strength we didn’t know we had to offer empathy and kindness to others in need of healing. We learn gratitude for blessings taken for granted. We understand who our real friends are because they are with us in our pain instead of turning away from it. Pain becomes our teacher.
I pray for you the same thing I pray for myself: for pain to become our teacher. I pray for moments of clarity and strength which allow you and I to look at the pain in our own lives and the pain in our world so that pain can show us God’s way of love, healing and forgiveness. As we grow closer to an end to a pandemic, as mass shootings return to the headlines, as the daily pains occur while we live our complicated yet blessed lives, may there be tender moments for you and me where we can allow our pains to teach us its sacred lessons.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
7If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your
God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8Rather, be openhanded
and freely lend them whatever they need.
Deuteronomy 15:7 – 8
As we are on this Lenten journey, Lord, we want to be as generous to others as You have been to us.
Almsgiving is a tradition that dates before the celebration of Lent and has become a special focus for many during the Lenten season. Almsgiving is recorded in both Testaments of the Bible and reaches back through time to the days in the desert and the giving of the law. We have been called by God to give freely to all those in need.
17Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have
When we are gracious to one another, we are taking on the clothing of Christ. It is not just about generosity, but it is a true joy that feels our spirit when we reach out to another human being and offer alms and aid.
Let us define the different types of giving we are commanded to do in the Bible.
Alms is giving anything to relieve the poor, it is charity to those most in need.
Tithe is the first fruits of our labor, given to God as a thanksgiving for all He has given us.
Offering is that which we give above our tithe to see the Word of God spread and to express gratitude in a deeper way for the love that God gives us.
Grace is the giving of underserved gifts, the same loving generosity that God gives all of us, even when we have done nothing (or we have even done everything wrong) to deserve the gifts.
In all our giving, we are to be joyful and gracious. What is more amazing are the blessings that are tied to our giving. When we give with a joyful heart our spirit brightens, our outlook on the world becomes less dim and we grow stronger in our relationship with the Spirit of God.
10and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, down, joyless, God has a remedy for that. He promises us that when we are of a generous spirit and give to the poor, the underpaid, the oppressed that we will be lifted up in spirit. We will find a joy so unspeakable that it will radiate from us and we will shine like the “noonday”.
Giving to the poor with a spirit of joy is the work we have been called to do, not just in the season of Lent and not just in material ways. We are to look out for the poor. We are called to better their lives through our protection. We are called to work for the poor by making sure they have what they need to survive in this tumultuous world. Whether that is a living wage, healthcare, childcare, whatever that may look like in our society today, we are commanded to give alms to the poor.
Let this lent season be the beginning for you. Let this time of reflection be the moment that you step up and say, “I lay down my life for my brothers and sisters who have no other way”.
A moment of prayer for Lent:
Lord, I have given my tithes to You and I have made offerings to You and the work of Christ in this life, but often times I have forgotten the poor and what I can do for them. Turn my mind toward those who are in need.
Open my eyes that I can see my neighbors struggle and strike my heart so that I will not rest until I have given all that I have for You. Lord, You have given me so much, a home, food, money to spend on frivolous items, turn my eyes from that much wanted thing and let me look fully into the pool of the poor and suffering. Make my voice loud as I call out to others to assist the poor and to look upon them with mercy, just as you look on me in mercy.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who
love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even
sinners do the same.
--Luke 6:32-33 NRSV
Presidential Inauguration Day is about two months behind us and while there’s plenty of vitriol to go around, it feels to me like the general level of partisan demonization has returned to its usual furor rather than the insane levels of the last few years. For me at least, I can still get riled up any time I want by checking my Twitter feed, but no longer is every waking moment an exercise in reining in my political self-righteousness. Maybe there’s enough mental bandwidth to go around now, so I and we can consider whether or not living in a state of perpetual outrage is healthy?
I spent a good decade or so defining myself over and against fundamentalist Christians who were sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and every other kind of hateful -ist and -phobia that exists. It’s a good thing to refute that kind of Christianity, but at some point saying only “I am not. . .” leaves little room for one to say “I am. . .” One can spend so long criticizing the negative in the “other” that all you are is negative with nothing positive to say or be. One’s identity can become only about anger and outrage. Those things are non-renewable, so one must keep looking for someone or something to be angry and outraged about lest one be left with no identity at all.
Jesus understood that our identities have to draw from a spiritual source that never runs dry. That’s why he called us to love others, especially our enemies. It seems laughable, impossible even but when all you’ve got is anger and outrage for people who don’t think like you do or look like you do, then there isn’t much to you at all. It’s impossible to enjoy this one, fragile, precious life we’ve been given when there is no love, joy and happiness inside a person, only anger and outrage. Besides, love is the only real way to find union with God. When all of one’s self is devoted to anger and outrage, those things become our gods, false idols whom we unknowingly worship and devote our lives to. We end up have nothing left to give the God who is love.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesus also demonstrated that there are appropriate times to be angry—anger at injustice, anger at religion being used as a weapon, anger at the exploitation of the poor and powerless, but life is about more than anger. Jesus didn’t ask us to be passive in the face of injustice nor did he expect his followers to sit idly by while the powerful and rich abuse people below them on the social hierarchy. Instead, he called us to a better way where we resist becoming the same as the evils we claim to be against. Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy captures this idea, “When we are violent to our enemies, we do violence to ourselves. When we brutalize others, we brutalize ourselves. And eventually we run the risk of becoming our oppressors.” Ultimately, finding a way to love our enemies is a way to love ourselves.
Jesus taught resistance to violence for many reasons. One reason is the ones we are violent against are made in God’s image just like we are. A second reason is that we are made in God’s image just like they are, and the violence we direct outward flows inward too. It may not seem like posting on social media, hate-watching cable news or gathering with like-minded friends to decry the “others” who don’t think like you do is actual violence, but in a spiritual sense it most surely is. Writer Parker Palmer says it this way:
“Violence is any way we have of violating the integrity of the other. Racism and sexism are violence. Derogatory labeling of any sort constitutes violence. Rendering other people invisible or irrelevant is an act of violence. So is manipulating people towards our ends as if they were objects that existed only to serve our purposes. …Violence is not just about bombing or shooting or hitting people. To create peace in our lives–and our world–we need to be able to sit with frustration and hold the tension of opposite views.”
I don’t like it any more than you do, but perhaps the best way to love one’s enemy in 21st century America is to build relationships with people who disagree with you. I know there are some people with whom that won’t work. If someone refuses to acknowledge your sacred personhood because of your gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. real relationship isn’t possible. You have to love that person from a distance behind healthy boundaries. But if a way exists for people to be in relationship who think and believe differently while acknowledging each other’s worth in the eyes of God, then the only Christian way is the way of love.
As Christians, our true identities can only be found in love not in anger and outrage.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Recently I introduced my 14 year-old to the 90’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (He loves it, as all people of good taste do.) It’s a cheeky teen high school drama but with vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. The show’s heroes have seen all the classic monster movies, so they tend to crack great one-liners at whichever monster-of-the-week shows up. Part of the fun is watching various monsters’ expressions of surprise when their scary ways are recognized as predictable and even boring.
When it comes to vampires, Buffy plays off of all the old vampire tropes--sexy but dangerous guy (or girl) lures unsuspecting person into some necking that turns fatal. The person getting their blood sucked out may not see it coming, but we, the audience, see it from a mile away. Vampires, it turns out, are fairly easy to spot--just look for the pasty-faced goth with some dangerous dental work.
Churches can be vampires too. When a church has declined in numbers (as most churches have) and its dedicated older members have served in all the leadership positions more than a few times (as is the cast in most churches), churches begin to look at new people not as people to love but people to use. Churches end up sucking the life out of new people who get involved, give money and show up for events. Most people don’t make it that far. They see vampire churches for what they are and run for the exits.
I’ve been a part of vampire churches full of tired members who want their church to survive but no longer wish to do much about it. New folks who come in find a warm welcome, and because there aren’t enough willing members to fill leadership spots, folks new to the church are too quickly put into those roles. Almost always the new person is tasked with responsibilities for a church they barely know, and when they try something new without understanding a church’s culture and history, sacred cows get disturbed and long-time members mount an angry resistance. The frustrated new person leaves, and the church looks for fresh blood in the next new person to show up. (The same dynamic can happen to new pastors too.)
A few weeks ago in this newsletter, I shared an essay by one of the only church consultants I think makes any sense, Mark Tidsworth. Although he doesn’t use the term “vampire church,” he describes this phenomenon well in an essay titled “How to Shrink Your Church.”
Here’s how to become a vampire church.
No, PHCC is not a “vampire church,” but it could become one pretty easily just as many other churches have done. All it takes is looking at people outside the church as things to be used to help the church survive rather than as people who need the Good News of Jesus Christ and an experience of a loving community. It’s that simple. The danger in becoming a vampire is that a vampire slayer eventually will show up. For vampire churches, the slayer turns out to be a culture who wants nothing to do with self-serving congregations.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.