Sunday, July 16, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Wife of Lappidoth: Deborah"

Judges 4:1-10

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” 9 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Two

There are few heroes in the Syrian civil war. The Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad uses weapons of mass destruction against its own people, engages in all manner of human rights abuses, and has made refugees out of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. On the other side of the civil war is the Islamic State, whose brutality likely needs no introduction in the age of 24/7 news.

Also participating in this conflict are a great many other actors, including the Syrian Kurds, out of the region that they call Rojava. They, too, have committed a number of atrocities, including deploying child soldiers and abrogating the due process of prisoners. But they have also done something that is genuinely unique in the region—the areas of Syria that they control are governed over by a co-leadership model in which each executive office is divided into two positions—one held by a man, and the other held by a woman.

That is a remarkable thing in the Middle East, where few women have any chance of playing a substantive role in governing their countries. Heck, it would be a remarkable thing here, where we, too, have yet to elect a female chief executive.

In that respect, we’re still even behind a society as archaically and overtly sexist as ancient Israel, which benefitted from the leadership of a remarkable woman named Deborah, who judged Israel in a co-leadership role alongside an Israelite leader named Barak, similar to what the women of Rojava experience today. Only, as we will see, Deborah was such a singularly extraordinary person that Barak makes no bones about who looks up to who. Hint: it is he who looks to, and up to, her.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

Last week, we met Ehud in Judges 3 as he assassinated the Moabite king Eglon, and here in Judges 4, it was the foreign king Jabin who was oppressing Israel—and had been doing so for twenty years—against whom the twelve tribes united. And the collectively acclaimed judge whom the twelve tribes united around, and rallied behind, was, of all people, a woman named Deborah.

Like Ehud’s father, we know Deborah’s husband’s name—Lappidoth—but again, like Ehud’s father, we know nothing else of Lappidoth. He is a non-factor, which, again, says something about Deborah’s origins—she likely was not married to a member of the ancient Israelite upper-crust and so, like Ehud, would have risen to her position as judge based on merit rather than on social standing.

In fact, we don’t even need to know what Lappidoth did for a living to say that about Deborah, simply due to the fact that Deborah was a woman. In a 21st-century country where we are still willing to elect a clearly unqualified man over a flawed, but fundamentally competent woman, it ought to say even more about Deborah’s abilities that a) she ever arose as a judge in the first place, b) that, as today’s passage says, people from all over Israel came to her as she dispensed her judgments and advice from her living space, and c) that even when it was insisted upon that she have a male counterpart in the form of Barak, Barak instead turned to her in verse eight and said, “I’ll only go if you go,” making it abundantly clear where the true moral authority of Israel laid at the time—on the shoulders of—it bears repeating again—a truly remarkable woman.

So let’s talk for a little bit about where such moral authority comes from. Of course we can say that it comes from God, and we may well often be correct in saying so, but at the same time, the church has, for centuries, declared that proscribed gender roles likewise come from God. Many churches and denominations explicitly preach this to this day, but even in churches that have rejected this antiquated notion still implicitly practice it by, say, always herding female volunteers away from building and grounds work and towards the nursery and Sunday School.

You may feel as though I am preaching to the proverbial choir with this particular message—after all, the majority of both our board of directors (our parish’s administrative leaders) and our elders (our spiritual leaders) are women. And we are a part of a denomination that just handed off its mantle of leadership from one woman to another this past week at General Assembly! That fact alone makes us very different from many other traditions, denominations, and congregations. I appreciate that, I genuinely do—one of my questions for the search committee here six(!) years ago was if any female pastors had been considered for the position they were interviewing me for, and that I now hold. They immediately and unreservedly answered yes.

But encouraging and exhorting one another to fulfill the callings and the roles that God has gifted us for—rather than the callings and roles we are dictated to must be ours by right of our gender—takes a bit more attention and care from all of us. And not just in the church, but in life. Are we capable of hearing out what someone has come to believe their passion is without us trying to tell them or push them into what we want their passion to be?

The difficulty in being a spiritual community is in recognizing that while there is a common set of ideals that unites us—that God has been revealed through Jesus Christ, and that through this revelation, we might be saved and reconciled to God—we cannot simply go through our spiritual lives with a one-size-fits-all approach or outlook, lest we become a community so homogenized that it leaves vast swaths of others out.

If ancient Israel had gone through its selection of judges through a one-size-fits-all approach, Deborah would likely never have become a judge. And when Israel does end up switching to a one-size-fits-all approach for governance in demanding a monarchy, the results for the country quickly turn south as Saul turns out not to quite be the king he should have been cracked up to be.

Far better, then, for a leader to be chosen not because they look like a leader, or fit our own limited preconceptions of leadership, but because they really do have the gifts, given to them by God through their own innate abilities and training and mentoring, to do what the role requires of them.

It is a lesson that isn’t just for us, but, ironically, sometimes, for the judges themselves—the last judge, Samuel, whose story will close out our series in several weeks’ time, learned it when he was sent to the estate of Jesse by God to seek the next king of Israel after Saul had mucked everything up. Jesse’s oldest son, who was apparently the Biblical equivalent of Ken Griffey Jr., came before Samuel and Samuel believed him to be the next king, but God told Samuel no. Then Jesse’s next son came by, who apparently was the Biblical equivalent of Russell Wilson, and again Samuel believed him to be the next king, and again God said no. But when David, the youngest, the one stuck tending the sheep, was summoned—God saw in David a gift, even though David himself ended up being a very morally dubious king. But that he didn’t look like a king? That didn’t matter to God.

That sort of giftedness is surely what the twelve tribes likewise saw in Deborah when they elevated her to the position of judge of Israel, even with the string attached that she be accompanied by Barak. It is surely what Barak himself saw in Deborah—so sure he is of her capacities that he is only willing to go to war if she goes with him.

Let that be a lesson for us—that whoever we turn to as our leaders, be they male or female, young or old, straight or gay, that we so trust them with that role that we would most want to go forth under their direction than another’s.

It is not always easy to find such leaders. They sadly come around rarely, and surely not often enough for our liking. But that also makes it all the more important to recognize them for who they are when they do appear, and to not shunt them off into other roles solely based on their gender or sexual orientation.

For even when God moves through us, and through the leaders being raised up, God also moves in far bigger ways than that. God still moves in ways far bigger than we can imagine.

Let that be our lesson for today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, from a judge such as Deborah.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
July 16, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

Monday, July 3, 2017

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column + New Sermon Series

July 2017: "A Primer for General Assembly"

Dear Church,

I will again be absent from the pulpit on Sunday, July 9, and from the office between July 10-13, as I travel to Indianapolis, Indiana--where the Disciples of Christ denomination is headquartered--to represent First Christian Church of Longview at our denomination's biannual General Assembly. What does that entail? A number of things--

The Assembly will be voting on a new General Minister and President to lead our denomination for the next six years, since our current GMP, Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, is term-limited. Rev. Terri Hord Owens, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has been nomiated to replace Pastor Sharon. I can say from personal experience, having had a prospective student interview with Pastor Terri when I was applying to seminaries almost a decade ago, that she is thoughtful, deliberate, and exceptionally intelligent. And if confirmed by the General Assembly, she will be--to my knowledge--the first black woman ever to lead a mainline Protestant denomination.

The Assembly will be voting on a series of other business resolutions, including exhorting the denomination and its congregations, in the spirit of God's charge to Adam to keep the earth in Genesis, to reduce our carbon footprint and to, in the spirit of the law given to Moses in Leviticus 19, to work towards being a more immigrant-welcoming church.

There are multiple continuing education opportunities at the General Assembly. I'll be sitting in on a couple of different classes to continue honing skills that my specialization within my Doctor of Ministry program at Seattle University might not otherwise touch much upon.

The need for connection and spreading good news is imperative--we are a geographically isolated congregation within both our region (as there are no other Disciples congregations within a 30-mile radius of us) and our denomination (which is most heavily concentrated in the Midwest, Texas, and Appalachia). Being able to testify to the good that we do, and to how the Holy Spirit is continuing to move in our congregation, is something that I consider to be an important task at General Assembly.

The chance to worship! I'll get to see cutting-edge preaching, music, design, and worship leadership from across the denomination. Ours is a diverse tradition that embodies a number of different liturgical styles, and getting to see how other pastors and leaders are doing worship often gives me something to bring back here as well.

And on a personal level, it will be a joyous time for me to be able to catch up with friends and colleagues from seminary, from my hometown of Kansas City, and from elsewhere even as I am there to do the work of the church. It is something that only comes around once every two years, and I will appreciate being able to attend and participate once again as a representative of LVFCC.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New sermon series: "Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel's Judges"

July is going to be a bit of a back-and-forth month from the pulpit--I'll be here, then away, then here, then away, and then, finally here to stay for a good long while! I'll be absent on July 9 as I represent First Christian Church of Longview at the 2017 General Assembly of our denomination, but you'll be in good hands that Sunday--Charlotte "Char" Mace, who is a seminarian in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is an active member at Longview First Presbyterian. I've gotten the chance to get to know Char a bit, and I believe that she will bring a great word for you on Sunday morning in my absence.

During my Sundays preaching, though, we'll begin a new sermon series for the summer months on several of Israel's judges. The judges were popular heroes who ruled Israel in between the time of Moses and the time of the kings like Saul, David, and Solomon. The judges were quite varied in terms of their personalities, strengths, and flaws, and their stories are often incredibly compelling, whether in triumph or in sadness. We'll begin the series this month with passages about three different judges: Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon, and I'm looking forward to getting to share a little bit about their life and deeds with all of you!

Summer 2017: “Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges”

July 2: “The Southpaw: Ehud,” Judges 3:12-23
July 9: General Assembly
July 16: “The Wife of Lappidoth: Deborah,” Judges 4:1-10
July 23: “The Arguer with Ba’al: Gideon,” Judges 6:25-33
July 30: “The Cautionary Tale: Abimelech,” Judges 9:7-21
August 6: “The Sacrifice: Jephthah’s Daughter,” Judges 11:29-40
August 13: “The Nazirite: Samson, Part I,” Judges 15:1-11
August 20: “The Nazirite: Samson, Part II,” Judges 15:12-20
August 27: “The Nazirite: Samson, Part III,” Judges 16:23-31
September 3: “The Final Judge: Samuel,” 1 Samuel 8:1-9

Sunday, July 2, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Southpaw: Ehud"

Judges 3:12-23

12 The Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil, and the Lord put Moab’s King Eglon in power over them, because they did these things that the Lord saw as evil. 13 He convinced the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, defeated Israel, and took possession of Palm City. 14 So the Israelites served Moab’s King Eglon eighteen years.

15 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord. So the Lord raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud, Gera’s son, a Benjaminite, who was left-handed. The Israelites sent him to take their tribute payment to Moab’s King Eglon. 16 Now Ehud made for himself a double-edged sword that was about a foot and a half long, and he strapped it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 Then he presented the tribute payment to Moab’s King Eglon, who was a very fat man. 18 When he had finished delivering the tribute payment, Ehud sent on their way the people who had carried it. 19 But he himself turned back at the carved stones near Gilgal, and he said, “I have a secret message for you, King.” So Eglon said, “Hush!” and all his attendants went out of his presence.

20 Ehud approached him while he was sitting alone in his cool second-story room, and he said, “I have a message from God for you.” At that, Eglon got up from his throne. 21 Ehud reached with his left hand and grabbed the sword from his right thigh. He stabbed it into Eglon’s stomach, 22 and even the handle went in after the blade. Since he did not pull the sword out of his stomach, the fat closed over the blade, and his guts spilled out. 23 Ehud slipped out to the porch, and closed and locked the doors of the second-story room behind him. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week One

I was surprised to see it displayed on the screen across from me on the airplane, just several days after mentioning it to a friend of mine of Czech descent over drinks one evening, but there it was—the film Anthropoid, about the true story of a small team of Czechoslovakian assassins trained by MI-6 who parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the SS general who was the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia and the sadistic architect of the Holocaust itself. To give you some idea of just how cruelly evil Heydrich was, even Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart,” while the Czech citizenry simply referred to him as “the butcher of Prague.”

On May 27, 1942, one Czech soldier, Jan Kubis, and one Slovakian soldier, Jozef Gabcik, assassinated Heydrich in broad daylight during Heydrich’s commute. To the Nazis, Gabcik and Kubis were criminals who were hunted down like prey until they were found in a church that had granted them safe harbor, where Kubis was killed and Gabcik committed suicide. To the Czechs and Slovaks, Kubis and Gabcik were (and are) national heroes, of whom big-budget Hollywood movies are now made.

But what stood out to me about their stories were that Kubis and Gabcik began as anonymous, unremarkable people—Kubis had enlisted into the army, but Gabcik originally was a farrier and a blacksmith, of all things. Much like many of the resisters to Hitler, Kubis and Gabcik did not come from royalty or otherwise extraordinary lineage. But they were extraordinary people.

And in this manner, they are very much like the very first judge we look at in our summer sermon series on Israel’s judges—an assassin named Ehud who rises up from the people to liberate Israel.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

The religion sociologist Max Weber referred to this model of governance as “charismatic leadership, and Hebrew Bible scholar James Kugel describes it thusly: “These leaders all shared one striking trait: none of them had any prior claim to rule. They did not come from a dominant family or rise up through the ranks to take over. Instead, their rise to power was created by a crisis; something occurred that required someone to take over, and the person in question suddenly emerged. (S/he) was then put into power by general acclamation: “This is just the leader we need!’”

One of the earliest judges to arise as the leader Israel needed was an assassin named Ehud. Preceding him—so, after the death of Moses’s heir Joshua, and Joshua’s chief lieutenant Caleb—was a judge named Othniel, who is referred to in the heading for his passage as “the model judge.” When Israel was enthralled with the Ba’als, Asherahs, and other false gods, they were conquered by a neighboring king, and when they returned to the Lord and cried out to God for help, Othniel rose up as that popularly acclaimed judge to lead the Israelites to victory and freedom.

For the following forty years, Judges says, there was peace. But then Othniel died, and because judges did not have heirs and so were not dynastic kingships, Israel went straight back to worshiping the Baals, Asherahs, and other false gods (a common denominator you’ll see in Israel’s behavior towards God in Judges is a very strong “what have you done for me lately” mentality). So again, Israel is conquered as a result, this time by the king of Moab, a chap by the name of Eglon.

Here is where Ehud enters the scene: after Israel cries out to God like they did previously, Ehud is acclaimed as judge and is sent as an assassin to Eglon under the pretext of delivering to Eglon his tribute payment as Israel’s conqueror. Ehud gives Eglon the agreed-upon tribute, but then takes a short sword and stabs the Moabite king to death.

Or, more accurately, he stabs the Moabite king to death using his (Ehud’s) left hand. Ehud is left-handed. Which, you might not realize, really was worth making note of in the original story. For centuries, left-handedness was associated with evil—so much so that our word ‘sinister’ comes from the Italian word ‘sinistra,’ which means ‘left-handed.’

Ehud is going to be a polarizing person for his act of assassination—after all, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But the fact that he assassinated Eglon with his left hand may well have made his act of political violence all the more disgraceful to the Moabites. But for the Israelites, it matters not how disgraceful on the surface this assassination might be—Ehud is committed to earning them their freedom once more after they had previously squandered it away.

His left-handedness is no accident—later in the book of Judges, Ehud’s tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, is described as training its warriors to fight left-handed so as to gain an advantage on their enemies who would be used to fighting hand-to-hand only with right-handed opponents. Benjamin was willing to gain whatever advantage it could in combat, societal expectations be damned.

But on top of his left-handedness, Ehud was, like Kubis and Gabcik, a total nobody: he was the son of a nobody, Gera, who was so inconsequential we literally know nothing about him but his name. And the tribe of Benjamin is a former shadow of itself by the time the book of Judges even makes it near the Hebrew Bible canon, because at the end of Judges, the other eleven tribes end up almost completely purging the tribe of Benjamin from their midst, leaving it as the smallest of the tribes. And to add further to the ignominy the tribe must suffer, Israel’s first king, the ultimately disgraced Saul, is likewise a Benjaminite. While Benjamin himself, as a son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, was afforded privilege by his father, the tribe named after him secured little of that for themselves.

So Ehud is a nobody, descended from nobodies, and surrounded by nobodies. He is the anonymous everyman, who should be unremarkable in most every way. Yet he is able to secure for Israel its freedom once more. And here is the kicker: after Ehud wins Israel its freedom, the land has peace for eighty years—twice the length of the era of peace under the model judge, Othniel.

Sometimes, from the most unlikely of sources, courage emerges than then leads to lasting peace. For many of the judges whom we will hear about over the next two months, that courage is, like Ehud’s made manifest in acts of war and violence, like that of Gabcik’s and Kubis’s assassination of Reinhard Heydrich thousands of years later.

Sometimes, that is the necessary way to resist evil. But let us be clear: those moments come about perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. Our wars in Vietnam, in Iraq, these wars of ours were not the only means at our disposal with which to resist evil.

As as we go forth into this new series together, we will learn that these judges are not always to be admired wholesale, across the board. Judges like Jephthah and Samson were willing to impetuously use their families as pawns in their schemes. Judges like Gideon and Abimelech flew too close to the proverbial sun. And many of them, especially Samson, were violent to the point of bloodthirstiness.

So let us take from each that which can be, and should be, admired by us, and treat carefully and with consideration the ways in we are called to do better, and to be better, than the examples presented to us within this book’s pages.

I think that if we do, we may learn something great from each of them, and our faith lives will be made better for our having done so.

In this way, God continues to open our hearts with these stories, just as God has done through these stories for millennia. May we be changed by hearing them, and may we be fully prepared for them to change us for the good.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 2, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

Monday, June 5, 2017

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

June 2017: "The Pastor's Summer Reading List"

Dear Church, As always, to commemorate the conclusion of yet another academic year for our schools and their students, I'd like to commend to you a few books for some summer reading should you be so inclined to use these days of summer to continue your search for understanding of mission of the church for today. A couple of friends have produced books recently that make this year's summer reading list, and I cannot say enough about the good work they do for the Gospel.

"Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church," Carol Howard Merritt (HarperOne, 2017)

Carol has been a friend and role model for me in ministry ever since she came to speak at a regional conference in Yakima a few years ago. Her latest book touches on her own journey out of fundamentalism and into ordained ministry in profoundly vivid and vulnerable ways while also weaving in the narratives of other souls who have crossed her path after experiencing pain and hurt in the name of the church. For those who have had difficult experiences with faith in the past, she includes guides and exercises with each chapter. It is such a strong narrative that I am actually going to be using this book as the basis for my autumn sermon series, so if you want to get a jump start on it, seek out a copy!

"Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines," Sandhya Rani Jha (Chalice Press, 2015)

I met Sandhya during my seminary days in Berkeley when she was the pastor of a Disciples congregation just south of me in Oakland. Like Carol, Sandhya is an excellent storyteller, and she puts those skills to use sharing about one of her biggest areas of expertise: racial reconciliation and justice. It is easy to say when we worship in a relatively homogenous church that reconciliation between races and ethnicities is not a concern for us, and yet I promise you, for the wider church it absolutely is a concern--a massive one--and Sandhya is one of the saints doing the work on the ground that needs to be done on behalf of the Gospel in this particular arena.

"Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn't Say," Adam Hamilton (Abingdon Press, 2016)

Unlike Carol and Sandhya, I don't really know Adam personally--I've only met him once--but I have a family friend and colleague who works with him at Church of the Resurrection in my hometown of Kansas City, and Adam is consistently a thoughtful writer across several books of his that I have read. This one tackles one of the things that often rankles us pastors about cultural Christianity--the platitudes that we repeat to ourselves and others (often with the best of intentions) that have no basis in Scripture and can in fact do more harm than good. Adam's patient, methodical style helps dismantle several of these platitudes while offering up more substantive and helpful alternatives for our faith.

These are a few of the books that will be on my shelf for this summer--what about for you, and your bookshelf?

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Fifty Days"

Acts 2:1-13

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. 

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” (Common English Bible)

Pentecost Sunday 2017

Last week, we spoke of the good and kind souls living thousands of miles away in Manchester who responded with compassion, love, and openness to the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert that week. But Carrie Frank is not a good and kind soul living thousands of miles away—she is a good and kind soul living right here in Longview’s interstate neighbor, Rainier, and was recently the subject of a very touching and moving profile in our local paper.

In response to last year’s terrorist attack at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando that killed nearly fifty people, Carrie decided to do more than mourn—she decided to act, to show that people from all over cared about those who were lost and those who remained. The owner of a pottery store and an artist by trade, she handpainted over one hundred mugs bearing the names of the victims, calling them “cups of love.” She was determined to send them to the survivors and the families of the deceased. But then she hit a snag—she had no way of knowing to whom to send the cups of love to ensure that they made it to the correct people, families, and households. And I’ll let the writer of the profile on her, The Daily News’s Madelyn Reese, pick it up from there:

Dejected, Frank gave up for a time. Then just before Easter she contacted the Orlando police department again. That’s when she got in touch with administrative assistant Dorothy Patterson and told her about her “cups of love” project…Patterson was able to get Frank in contact with someone who would help her—the Orlando United Assistance Center…

Thanks to Patterson and officials in the police department, Frank will send off the cups next week (sic). The cups are filled with rainbow-colored jelly beans donated from the Jelly Belly Co., and the cups will be shipped through the Kelso J.C. Penney’s bulk shipping account.

The mugs are individually packaged, so all the center needs to do is write the address of each family or survivor on the box and send it off. Though the project has been delayed many months, Frank said it was “meant to be” because the cups will arrive near the one year anniversary of the Pulse tragedy.

“I’m actually really happy that it happened the way it did,” Frank said. “It’s going to be more meaningful, I think. I hope that it’s more meaningful to them now, a year later, they are remembered.”

What had originally hoped to be a rapid show of compassion turned into more of a commemoration through the passage of time. Still meaningful—very meaningful, in fact—but it is meaningful in a slightly different way than before. Which is a good way of summing up the importance of today, Pentecost Sunday, for the Christian church.

Pentecost celebrates the day that the Holy Spirit came to the assembled believers in Jerusalem, fifty days after Easter. Which begs the question—what were they all doing in Jerusalem to begin with?

Pentecost, like Good Friday, fell on a Jewish festival day—in this case, the Feast of Weeks, which was a commemoration of the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai, just as the Passover (when Good Friday falls) is the commemoration of the liberation from bondage of the Israelites under Moses.

But that isn’t how the Feast of Weeks actually began—it evolved into a celebration of the giving of the law. Before that, it was a harvest festival, as Bible professor Paul Walaskay explains: “The Day of Pentecost (fifty days after Passover) was also known as the Feast of Weeks, an agricultural festival in which the community celebrated the gathering of the first harvest (wheat) and offered thanks to God for nature’s bounty (Exod. 23:14-17; 34:18-24).” It is a holiday that may not be quite as prominent on the calendar as Passover, but is still nonetheless important, as evinced by the number of Israelites who have gathered from all sorts of places to Jerusalem in order to celebrate this holiday together.

So what became a holiday commemorating a spiritual harvest—the gathering of God’s Law upon Sinai—has its roots in also celebrating a physical harvest—the first wheat harvest of the year.

Yet, as the story of Carrie Frank ought to teach us—in huge, flashing neon—spiritual harvest ought to be able to lead to physical harvest. Her good faith and her belief in goodness led her to creating the physical gift of the cups of love—a harvest of physical fruit, as it were, from spiritual seeds.

It has taken her most of the past year to get these cups of love out to their intended recipients, though, and if that seems too daunting a timetable for you to try to reap a harvest of fruit from your spirituality, then why not try to take on the more modest timetable of Pentecost itself?

Fifty days after the redemption of humanity in the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit arrives to the disciples who have assembled in Jerusalem for the festival. Fifty days from today is Monday, July 24.

What can the Holy Spirit do through you in the next fifty days?

Because believe me, the world needs the Spirit working through you as surely as it does the Spirit working through any of us. We’re mourning the loss of two Good Samaritans to the violence of white supremacy in Portland, we’re grieving the carnage and loss of life of back-to-back terrorist attacks in England—first in Manchester, and now yesterday deep in the heart of London—and we’re facing down epidemics of addiction and poverty and homelessness here in Longview…what can you do in the next fifty days to put even the smallest of dents in these soul-sized problems before us?

For sometimes, being able to minister, and to be a net force for good in the world, isn’t about being the one to fix something. It’s about being the one to minister to something, or to someone, in a way that empowers them to rise up themselves, to find their own inner strength, instead of us waving a magic wand.

The cups of love are not going to bring back to life the dozens of loved ones who went to their graves that night in Orlando nearly one year ago. But those cups will at least offer something of value—a message of hope, of love, and of unconditional compassion to the soul-sized gaping void that I promise you still remains in the lives of the people who lost someone at Pulse, or at Manchester, or at London Bridge.

The Holy Spirit coming to the disciples wasn’t meant to fix the reality that Jesus was gone—He ascended to heaven ten days previous—but instead was meant to be something new entirely. The Holy Spirit didn’t necessarily fill the void left behind by Jesus. It equipped the disciples to move forward without the bodily incarnation of Jesus right next to them.

So how might the Holy Spirit be equipping you to plunge forward into the next fifty days in spirit and in truth? We have lived the fifty days since the crucifixion and resurrection—what about the next fifty? And the fifty after that?

Before you know it, you may well have taken some small calling and made it into something good and something great in God's sight.

Such are the ways of the Spirit.

Such are the ways of a Pentecost church.

And such are the ways of God who loves you so much that God will not leave you alone.

After all, Jesus has since ascended to heaven.

But the Spirit remains.

And the Good News of Pentecost is that the Spirit always remains.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 4, 2017

Sunday, May 28, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Pantokrator: The Almighty"

Revelation 21:22-26

I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. 23 The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. (Common English Bible)

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Six

If you remember the horrific terrorist attack at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for, you’ll recognize that this past week’s tragedy in Manchester bears some disturbing similarities—both targeted massive events held at stadiums in large metropolitan areas, both were claimed by the Islamic State, and both inflicted massive human pain upon people who want only to live in peace and experience some joy alongside one another.

But there were, believe it or not, some heartening similarities to both as well. Both tragedies elicited stories of genuine heroism and human compassion from the people on the ground. As with the Paris attack with its “portes ouvertes,” or “open doors” campaign, Manchester residents immediately threw open the doors of their homes to concertgoers stranded by the attack in a social media campaign centered around the #RoomForManchester hashtag.

Also in Manchester, two shelterless men, Chris Parker and Stephen Jones, began pulling nails and shrapnel out of the limbs of the wounded, wrapping up the wounded in t-shirts and elevating them to prevent them from bleeding out, and even cradling a dying woman during her last moments of life. And Ariana Grande herself has reportedly offered to pay for the funerals of each of the twenty-two souls who perished in the attack at her concert.

Circle back to the Manchester residents opening their doors to terrified and vulnerable strangers—that is hospitality of the oldest sort, hospitality that comes straight from Scripture (and probably from before Scripture as well). And it is precisely the sort of open welcome to those in need that exists in the kingdom that is ruled over by God, specifically, in the image of God as presented by John of Patmos here in Revelation 21, God the Almighty, or the Pantokrator.

This is the conclusion to a sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday, which is one week from today, and commemorates when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents for us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we have been using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

As a part of this series, we have talked about some of the earliest images of Jesus like the Good Shepherd and, last week, the Christus Victor, or the Victorious Christ, and we remain in the realm of much older images of Jesus with one of the most profound of all: the Pantokrator, or the almighty.

That image of Christ the Pantokrator was what greeted me from the frescoed ceiling when I set foot inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands on the traditional site where Jesus is said to have been crucified, but is so contentiously governed by the differing factions of Christianity that lay claim to it that the task of keeping the keys and gates to the church is in fact entrusted to a local Muslim family, whose members have handed down this sacred responsibility from one generation to the next stretching all the way back to the 1100s.

So we Christians clearly need to work on our gatekeeping skills. Or, we could embrace the image that John of Patmos puts forth here in Revelation that in God’s kingdom, gates are not even a requirement—that the gates to the kingdom will always be open during the day, and since there is no night, the implication is that the gates will be open around the clock, 24/7.

As the scholars Justo and Catherine Gunslaus Gonzales put it in their commentary on Revelation, “The gates are never closed, which is understandable, both because there is no need for defense and because there is no night, the time when the city gates were normally closed. There is no night because the light is the glory of God, and God does not depart from the Holy City.”

The kingdom that is under the rule of the Almighty, the Pantokrator, then, is one in which the glory of God is never extinguished, and precisely because God’s glory is never extinguished, it is safe enough and secure enough to not ever need to close its gate.

You may remember from the message on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd on John 10 a few weeks ago that in the same discourse that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, He also refers to Himself as the gate through which the sheep go. There again is the imagery of the Almighty juxtaposed with something as humble as a gate, in order to prove a point that it is not we who determine who gets to pass through the gate and who does not, but that it is God who chooses.

Which is, after all, the purview of the Almighty. The “original sin” of Adam and Eve wasn’t really about the apple, but what the apple represented: taking from God that which belonged to God—namely, the capacity to determine good and evil. Which means that I don’t get to say that someone else isn’t a Christian. Neither do you. Neither do any of us. Christ as the Pantokrator is that gate which determines such soul-sized matters, not us.

Instead, like in the wake of the Manchester attack this past week, and the attack by an Islamophobic white supremacist on two young Muslim women and the three men he then stabbed when they rose to protect the teenaged girls, we open our arms to the possibility that Christ-like actions can come from those we may not think of as Christian—or who do not identify as Christian themselves. Indeed, that white supremacist's last name is Christian, but his acts of racism and terror most surely are not.

I have seen photographs of Muslims praying alongside Jews at the blast site—to me, that is Christ-like. The stories of heroism from homeless men like Chris Parker and Stephen Jones—to me they are Christ-like. The offer from Ariana Grande to finance her fans’ funerals—Christ-like.

And the offers from hundreds of Mancunians for much-needed shelter for a night for thousands of traumatized concertgoers? Christ-like in the most Biblical sense in the term, because here in Revelation, we learn that under God Almighty, and Christ the Lamb, that the doors to sanctuary are always open, just as they were in Paris after the Parc des Princes attack, and just as they are now.

It is Christ-like because it takes from Christ those things we are called to emulate—the humility, the hospitality, the openness—rather than the things we are not, that are best left to the Pantokrator because of our own limitations—the sovereignty, the judgment, the power over life and death.

Part of acknowledging the role of Christ the Pantokrator in your life is to acknowledge that you cannot and will not ever be as mighty as He was, and to surrender such godlike tasks to Him. And as I’ve preached before—and will continue preaching—there is freedom that comes in that surrender. It should be a weight off of your shoulders, and mine, to not have to hold the final determination of a soul’s ultimate fate.

Indeed, the fate of any soul, including yours, is still first and foremost up to you personally. Terrorists cause God to judge them by their actions. God may judge you by your actions as well, but it is you who get to choose what acts you will be judged by based on your choice to perform them or not. Give aid and comfort to a dying person, even if nobody else is there to see it? God sees it. Give of your time and money to charity and the church? As Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, even if you do so in secret—and you should—God, who sees in secret, will reward you.

Even if you may struggle with the notion of an almighty God or an almighty Christ, the truth is, we need such a God and such a Christ at times, if only to surrender to them the tasks that we are not equipped for.

In short—be Christ-like, and God will see it. But be the Christ that you are capable of being, not the Christ that only Jesus Himself is capable of being.

Do thusly, and there is yet, and will always be, hope for humanity after the next tragedy, and the one after that, and the one after that.

For hope, too, is a fundamental image of the living Christ—one that we cannot ever afford to lose sight of.

So treasure that hope. Protect it. Bear it. And share it.

And that image of Christ will be what helps bring God's divine healing to a bleeding world that aches for such grace and reconciliation in the face of violence met with still more violence.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 28, 2017