Monday, September 29, 2014

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

October 2014: "Growth is Never Static"

Dear Church,

I am thrilled to report that with Lacie Cook's baptism on Sunday, September 28th, we have now had eight baptisms in the church in 2014. It has been such a wonderful experience to watch new members formally join our church family in this way, immersing themselves in the waters of renewal and arising as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ--performing these baptisms definitely counts as one of the perks of this gig!

Baptisms also represent the growth our church is experiencing, both numerically and spiritually. And with either type of growth, we can expect the church to change in new and exciting ways...including ways that may sometimes be unexpected and surprising!

We often want our beloved church to remain the way it is; I know I definitely felt that growing up in a church plant that started with 50 people in one worship service when my family began taking me there at ripe old age of six and grew into roughly 500 attendees on a Sunday between three worship services by the time I graduated college. We're not operating anywhere close to that scale, nor are we trying to, but even going from 50 to 60 people means that a church will see some new energy.

And that's ultimately a good thing. Far too often, I've experienced with both churches and denominations a wish to have more people, but to not have more ideas. Put differently: they want reinforcements to keep doing the same things that have been done for decades, but not necessarily to create new things to add on to or complement the existing ministries, programs, and activities.

But that's no way to go about growing the body of Christ, because it means the Church (big "C", universal church) is saying to potential new believers, "We want you, but only if you do what we'd like for you to do rather than what you may feel called to do with your own God-given gifts and talents." It isn't a very welcoming message, and a lot of people--young people especially--have felt that sentiment directed at them.

Ever since I arrived, I have striven to be intentional and up-front about my vision for this church as a safe space for people to try new spiritual practices and disciplines that might draw even more people in, and I hope you will hold me to that vision, because ultimately, the church isn't about what I want, or you want, or what any one person wants. It is what God wants, and as the early church leader Irenaeus said, the glory of God is man fully alive.

May our growth in spirit and in numbers continue in such a way that all our members, present and future, feel fully alive for God!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

You may also have noticed that on Sunday, I began a new sermon series, entitled "The Sermon on the Mount's Little Sibling: Luke's Sermon on the Plain."  If you're interested in seeing what comes next and/or in following along, here is the rest of the series in outline, which will take us through Sunday, November 2:

October 5: “Newton’s Third Law,” Luke 6:20-26
October 12: “Children of the Most High,” Luke 6:27-36
October 19: “On Planks and Specks,” Luke 6:37-42
October 26: “Omnia Munda Mundis,” Luke 6:43-45
November 2: “Upon Sand, Upon Rock,” Luke 6:46-49 

What is super-crazy to think is that the next full-blown sermon series that I'll be kicking off after this one is my Advent series. Holy freaking cow! -E.A.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "11,541 Red Chairs"

Luke 6:17-19

17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed. 19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone. (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week One

I grew up with the Bosnian war.  I grew up with its horrible stories beamed through into my childhood home on the television.  I grew up with the public deliberations by the US, Europe, NATO, on whether or not to intervene in an ethnic cleansing of a whole peoples on the front page of the newspapers that I would walk outside to pick up in my Power Ranger pajamas (yes, I owned pair.  I regret nothing).  Running on the heels of, and almost parallel to, the genocide in Rwanda, it was a quick 1-2 punch in the stomach in learning, at a very young age, just how cruel and terrible humankind is to one another.

In 1994, just after the new year, Serbian shells began to pelt the capital, Sarajevo.  Attacks at the airport shut down all humanitarian aid flights in and out of the capital.  Eventually, food would run out.  This would go on for 44 months—nearly four years—before the siege was finally lifted through NATO intervention in 1997.

After all was said and done, 11,541 Bosnians died in the siege of Sarajevo.  Their memorial stood upon a long avenue that leads up to the eternal flame that commemorates the Bosnians killed in the Second World War…an avenue that upon which rested exactly 11,541 red plastic lawn chairs, one for every person living in the city who was killed.  Every.  Single.  Person.

And for the children whose lives were taken, smaller red chairs were used to mark their places.

There are few things that I think we really can do to make a ground sacred, but remembering the dead in so vivid and heartbreaking a manner is, I have to think, one of the few.  Because it is the final testament to how we treat them—how we are treating a fellow person and child of God.

And where do we ultimately get those instructions on how to treat another person?  Well, from sermons like the one we are about to unpack over the next six weeks.  And just as we can take something as unremarkable as a length of street and turn it into something truly sacred and profound, so too is Jesus about to take a thoroughly unremarkable expanse of land and use it as the stage for the providing of some of His most profound wisdom. 

And it is nothing short of a transformation.

This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, but before we even get to that, we must set the scene!

Christ has just called the twelve disciples, and He is taking them along, presumably for their very first instructions.  While this would not be Jesus’s first sermon in Luke (that came two chapters earlier, in Luke 4, wherein Jesus so pushes the buttons of his hometown synagogue by claiming that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that they try to kill Him by throwing Him off of a freaking cliff), it would have been the first sermon that the Apostles would have all heard together.  And, in what will turn out to pretty much be par for the course throughout His ministry, Jesus finds His little party being crashed by the people.  Specifically, people in dire, desperate need of His divinity.

And that should be a clue to us right off the bat: that before Jesus even utters another word to His brand-new crew, He first makes sure to take care of literally everybody else first.  It is an expression of Christian hospitality in its most radical form.  It helps to make this land, this plain, this level place upon which Jesus stands, holy.  Because, ultimately, it is the site of transformation for an untold number of people—literally.  Luke does not tell us just how many people are made whole by Christ in such a short passage.  But I can only imagine that it is quite many.

Really, it is because of works and miracles like this that we literally call this place the Holy Land.  Holiness happened here.  Holiness, as John’s Gospel says, pitched its tent here and lived among us.  But what makes the land itself holy?  It is, after all, when you get down to it only sand and dust and dirt, the very same elements from whence God drew Adam, and even then, the dirt did not become alive and set apart until God breathed life into it and made it so.

But over the course of many, many years, we have lost touch with that spark, that source of divine breath.  We became in dire need of it again, and so we were given Jesus, who breathes life, restores life, and redeems life.  Jesus acts, in this passage and in so many others, as the embodiment of a life transformed because He was never just our original human form to begin with.  He was always so, so much more.

And far be for us to elevate such a being, such an incarnation, to something higher than us—up onto a pedestal, a mount, a place above us mere broken mortals.  After all, God is up there and we are down here and that's the way it has to be, right?  But as opposed to Matthew, where Jesus is high up on the mountaintop to preach, here He remains in that level place, right where we are, in order to make us whole.

Jesus is meeting us where we are.  And in so doing, He is making this earthen ground we tread on, that dirties our feet and cakes our clothing, holy.  Because before teaching us how to act towards one another, He first shows us.  He shows us by meeting us where we are, seeing our most dire needs, and remedying them.

I know it sounds simple when I put it like that, but it is anything but.  We’re terrible at meeting people where they are and at meeting their needs.  We’re absolutely horrible at it, both because we want people to be where we are—spiritually, emotionally, mentally—and because we want to meet the needs we want to meet, not the needs that are there.  We look at someone else who votes differently from us or who reads a different translation of the Bible from us as someone who needs to be fixed, and we fail to see that those ‘needs’ aren’t even needs at all.

In other words, we make up needs that we want to meet because we can.  And because that’s oftentimes a heck of a lot easier than actually caring about and helping someone out.

And so we need the church—we need Christ—to show us the way.  To show us the way towards another person’s soul, to another person’s life, and to strengthen it and embrace it in God’s name.  We need one another to hold our own selves accountable for how we act towards the others in our own lives.  We need, in the most basic sense, a community.

And for this community, First Christian Church, almost 85 years ago ground was broken for the building in which we meet to be built.  The land below us was given a new purpose, a sacred and profound purpose, and in so doing, I have to think, was made holy.  Because this entire time, we have tried, with varying degrees of success but still with constant commitment, to meet our neighbors where they are as soon as they walked through those great wooden double doors.

But that is no longer enough, not today.  We must in turn go back out, to build the church outside of our great walls, and in turn make those spaces holy as well.  Your own home can be a holy land, your own kitchen table, your own gym, anywhere that you can meet the need of another person by offering them the love of Christ, you are emulating Christ upon the level place where He met the masses and healed them all.

And that is no small thing, I promise you.  I have people in my own young career in ministry who tell me about things that I was in some way involved in that impacted them positively: things that I had all but forgotten about until they reminded me that I had been there, that I had played some sort of role, and that their own lives, like the lives of the people in this short, almost thrown-away three-verse story of Luke’s, were transformed.

That’s what we’re going for here, people.  I’m under no illusion that y’all can instantly recall every word of every sermon that I’ve given here, or of every sermon that you have heard here, or of every Bible study, every Sunday School class, every Children’s Church session, that we’ve had together.  Our brains simply don’t work that way.

But I’d like to think that I can safely say that for all of you at some point, something that has happened here has transformed you somehow.  Something led you here, to this point.

That’s why, I think, the display of the 11,451 red chairs in Sarajevo so profoundly impacted me when I first read about it and saw the images.  Something got us to this point where, after we had once again slaughtered thousands of our neighbors because of some diabolical need we had convinced ourselves of, we then saw the need to make that besieged land sacred once more.  To make it holy once more.

To restore it once more.

And that is why I imagine we are here today.  To continue seeking that same restoration from profane into sacred, from broken into whole, from dying into living, from beaten down into lifted up.  It is that restoration that Jesus offered so many years ago.  And it is still offered to you today.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 28, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Bird's Eye View from the Trenches on the Urgent Need for Bigger Solutions to Systemic Ills

When Longview was built in the 1920s, it was literally a planned city: much of it was built in one fell swoop in accordance with the vision of its founder (and Disciple of Christ), Robert A. Long (guess where the town name came from).  From the beginning, Longview was planned with the center of town as its focus: the civic circle has spokes in the form of city streets radiating from it in all directions, and it hosts City Hall, the post office, the library, and Lower Columbia Community College, among others.  Mere blocks from it is Lake Sacajawea, around which, on one block, sit four churches, one of which is mine.  And on both sides of the lake, palatial homes are shaded by plentiful trees and bordered by beautiful yards.  This area of town, and the scope and grandeur of the churches it contains, was always meant to house the economically upper middle class citizens of the city.

But that was nearly a century ago.  Today, Longview is a town that has been pummeled again and again by poverty: as of 2012, median income is about $16,000 per year below the state average--that's the equivalent of over $1,300 per month, a difference of nearly 28%.  Our median home value is a staggering $80,000 below the state average, nearly one-third below the state average home value of $243,000.  The state unemployment rate may have finally fallen below 6%, but ours remains at over 7%, at 7.1% as of June, 2014...and even that seems miraculous, considering that when I arrived here three years ago in 2011, our unemployment rate was over 11%.

By just about any measurable statistic, we are hurting.  But one of the areas we are hurting most is food.  In spite of our beautiful greenery and vast wildernesses of woods and mountains and beaches, we are fast becoming a desert--a food desert.

Per the data link I provided above, Cowlitz County is below the state average for grocery stores per capita, but well above the state average for convenience stores per capita, a key statistic in determining food scarcity of any metropolitan area.  Because long gone (sorry, Mr. Long) are the days of agriculture wherein the family farm stayed in the family for generations, and going into town usually meant a trip into market to see what wares your farming neighbors were selling that morning.

Now, agriculture is all about access: on the one side, you have the food.  On the other side, the consumers.  And the nutritionally-rich food you associate with a grocer or a supermarket simply isn't present at probably 99% of the convenience stores out there.

But even more than that, it is an indicator that people are going hungry.  And that's where I come in.

Many churches will have something that may go by different names in different places: a pastor's discretionary fund, a benevolence fund, a helping hands fund, but it is basically a line-item in the church budget that allows for the church to step in and offer micro-aid of sorts.  If a family's water is about to be shut off, or if they came home to an eviction notice on the door, churches with these funds are supposed to be able to step in and help.

We have such a fund, and most months, I know exactly when the city or the county have sent out a new round of shutoff notices, because our phone will be ringing off the hook that week.  Then there are the needs that come with renting: said eviction notices, but also deposits and first-and-last-month's rent as move-in costs.  Add to that the people also coming to us asking for gas in their vehicles and food in their stomachs, and suddenly I have to make a very small amount of money go a very, very long way.

A couple of common denominators I have found are that, 1) the people who seek us out are either homeless themselves or are caring for family and/or friends who would otherwise be homeless, and 2) have fallen through the cracks somehow: either they're employed but make just a hair too much to be eligible for Section 8, or they're three days from payday with no milk in the fridge, or they're just plain so far off the grid that there are no governmental support structures that they are a part of.

(And before you say that I shouldn't believe everything I hear: I know, for a fact, that I've been lied to in this line of work.  I know, for a fact, that I have consciously chosen to extend aid to drug addicts who were high when they came to me, not because I endorse or condone their drug abuse (because I don't), but because when you're homeless and starving because you just spent your last nickel to get loaded, the Good News doesn't come in the form of being harangued or lectured by a holier-than-thou preacher man, it comes in the form of a freaking sandwich.  I *still* have to say no to a lot of people, but I'd rather it be for reasons to protect the church's financial interests in maintaining this fund rather than for reasons of whether or not a poor person literally begging me for lunch had adhered to my arbitrary code of morals, because that's just not fair to them.)

And for basically being an amateur social worker without any training, I think I do okay.  But with each passing month, I am increasingly acutely aware that I have been tasked with trying to stem the tide that is bursting through a breached dam, and that all I have been given to do this monumental, herculean task with is some scotch tape and bailing wire.

If you philosophically believe that government shouldn't be in the business of creating a larger safety net for impoverished people, that's fine.  But I'd genuinely like to hear what your alternative solution would be, because after three years of this being one of the most emotionally painful parts of my job, I can tell you two things: first, the need for a greater safety net is there, because I'm the one trying to catch the people as they fall right through it.  And second, "the church" is simply not equipped to fill all the gaps.  In fact, nearly 60% of all congregations, my own included, have fewer than 100 people in attendance on Sundays.  Exactly how many resources do you think we have to spare after fulfilling our own financial obligations to those very same utility companies, the taxman, our denominations, our insurers, and so on?

The answer is: not an awful lot.

I'm no public policy maker, even though I debated public policy for seven years in high school and college.  So I don't know exactly what the bigger solutions are or need to be.  This is someone yelling "FIRE!", not running for the water hose.  But, with the yell of "FIRE!," running for the hose is the next instinctual step.

So, what happens next?  What do you think needs to happen next?  For governments or for churches, for individuals or for communities?  Because I promise you, the status quo is unacceptable.  And despite Jesus having come and gone 2,000ish years ago, it always has been unacceptable.  We are failing our mission.

And I really don't know much more failure on behalf of the poor who are His children God will be willing to tolerate out of us.  I suspect we may be greeted at the gates of heaven not with "Well done, my good and faithful servant," but with, "Why the $#@^$#&#*@! didn't you do more?"

And all we will be able to do is shrug our shoulders.  Our testimony to our faith lives should, and must, amount to more than that.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, September 21, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Being Prayerful"

John 12:1-11

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) 

7 Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” 9 Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. 11 It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.(Common English Bible)

“Three Years in Three Weeks: Christ’s Ministry, Our Calling,” Week Three

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre rises up out of the stones and sand of the Old City in Jerusalem, with its twin domes making it instantly recognizable from the outside.  Inside, it holds a shrine that tradition says stands over the very spot where the hill we call Calvary or Golgotha once stood: the hill where Scripture tells us Jesus was crucified, and further down into the church building is the site where some hold that Jesus’s tomb had been as well.  It really is an amazing place to be a pilgrim at.

Controlling access to this holy site are, primarily, three different religious denominations: the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.  And you would think, considering the venerable and historical nature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they would be enthusiastic stewards of such a titanic piece of Christendom.  You would be wrong.

For centuries, the three factions have squabbled over power, caretaking duties, and stewardship of the church to the point that as recently as in 2008, fisticuffs broke out between Greek and Armenian monks on the feast day of the Holy Cross.  Israeli police officers had to be called in.  To one of the holiest churches in the world.

And when you consider that one of the primary job duties of being a monk is to, well, pray, it makes you wonder just how much easier we have made it for ourselves to disagree with each other over Jesus rather than to pray to Him.  And the answer is that, well, we have been doing it ever since He was here, as far back as this story from John’s Gospel as another Passover rolls around.

It feels a little bit weird, doesn’t it?  We just wrapped up an 11-week sermon series three weeks ago, and here we are, wrapping up another “new” sermon series today!  But this three week series was always meant to be just three weeks, because it coincides with the start of year four of all y’all putting up with me, and I have to say, looking back on our first three years together, there is a lot for us to be proud of and to hang our proverbial hats on: we’ve seen the marriages of half a dozen couples involved in the church, we’ve had 9 (10 next week!) baptisms, and the amount of mission work that we’ve done in the community, measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars in value, which, when you consider our still small size, speaks volumes to this congregation’s commitment to fulfilling Christ’s fundamental command to care for the marginalized among us.

But there is still so much for us to do, and I haven’t done an explicitly vision casting sermon series for our community since the “Time to be Church” series way, way back in the beginning of 2013, and a lot has changed for us since then.  So, this series is meant to represent, in three installments, what I am envisioning for our next three years together, and the series’ structure comes from how John’s Gospel describes the beginning of each of the three years of Jesus’ own ministry, and we began two weeks ago in Year One with a famous story that the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but one that John curiously puts at the very beginning: the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.  Last week, we get to Year Two, which is marked by another well-known story that is in all four Gospels: the feeding of the five thousand.  This week, we arrive at Year Three, the final Passover, the one what we call the Passion.  Only we aren’t quite there yet…in fact, we aren’t even in Jerusalem, we’re in Bethany with Mary and Martha and Lazarus (yep, the very same dude whom Jesus resurrects from the dead just a chapter earlier).

But unlike John 11, the beginning of John 12 focuses not on Lazarus, but on one of his sisters, Mary.  She finds Jesus just as He is taking a detour from His final journey towards Jerusalem to visit them in their hometown of Bethany.  She seeks him out, kneels at his feet, and anoints Him as Judas Iscariot looks on and scorns her.  Despite this scorn, there is a word for what Mary is exhibiting here: reverence.  She has sought Jesus out in order to be reverent and prayerful before Him.

And especially from John’s perspective, it is right that she should do so, because John has such a high view of Jesus’s divinity: Jesus as the divine Word, the Logos, that came to earth and lived among us, Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus as the Bread of Life, and so on.  But in this passage, Jesus really is able to be human for a change—He is finally able to allow someone else to minister to Him rather than the other way around—and what an impact that singular reality has on Him, as He reminds Judas in verse eight, “You do not always have me.”

This is a lesson easily applicable to each of us as well: we do not always have one another.  As easy as it is to fall into the rut of taking one another for granted (and, similarly, taking God for granted), it is vital that we do not do so.

And John hits us over the head with that message throughout this story: he is telling us with as many blatantly obvious clues as possible whose perspective and actions we are meant to value and emulate here.  John doesn’t just mention Judas by name; he also adds that this is the guy who was to betray Jesus, that he was a thief, and that he stole from the common purse of his fellow disciples.  One practically expects John to just keep going in this vein and say that Judas is also the Sith Lord who destroyed the Republic in Star Wars and who is, on Sundays, a 49ers fan.

It is meant to be as clear as day to us that Judas is the antagonist here, and that we are meant to contrast his bad guy example to the protagonist example of being good, which Mary (who, as a woman, would have been of far less social significance and importance than Judas in ancient Israel) exemplifies and personifies.  If Judas is the bosom buddy of Sith Lords and Colin Kaepernick, well, Mary is simply the person who each of us strives to be: someone who is not necessarily wealthy, or a major somebody, but who is still capable of great goodness simply by taking the time to do so, something that we don’t always take the time to do, no matter how simple it may seem to us.

Because in our lives, we are always trying to move closer to whatever our next goal or accomplishment is…a new car, or a promotion, or moving into a new home.  There’s always something on the horizon, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it’s what keeps us moving forward, and I talked a lot last week about us being grateful for the future rather than fearful of it.  But that also shouldn’t come at the expense of the present.  And I definitely include myself in this, in terms of always moving on to the next big thing before finishing what it is that I have already started.

Now, I realize that there will be times when that is just not possible, where we just cannot be as present and in tune with those around us in that moment as we would like to be.  We’re human.  We’re inherently imperfect.  Stuff happens, and we have to react to it.  And I say this because I believe that sometimes, maybe not all the time, but definitely sometimes, it takes all of the awfulness happening to us in all of those moments to make us realize how little were paying attention to the fact that our attention is, in fact, a very valuable commodity.

I’ll repeat that: sometimes, it takes getting overwhelmed by all the insanity and pain around us to recognize just how valuable a gift our attention and our reverence can be, for both God and for each other.  Because in that moment, mere days before the Passion, her attention was the greatest gift that Mary could have given Jesus.  In that moment, her ministry was the greatest possible thing Jesus could have received from her.  And He recognizes it as such.  It means that sometimes, the greatest gift we can give is our attention, our care, or ability to be good to one another, because it is such a profound and sacred way of saying, “I revere you.”  And in this way, it is absolutely a type of prayer.

Which means we need to be busy building up our own prayer practices and disciplines and exercises to be enough to include all of the people we know who do need our prayer and our attentions.  It means building up our own spirituality so that we can then in turn build up one another.

If that sounds complicated, or a like a lot of work, that’s because it is both of those things.  Which is why we so often turn to the simpler course of tearing one another down, or of digging into each other like Judas does to Mary, and fighting each other like the monks of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre do, or outright annihilating each other, which we have done, well, throughout history.

Jesus, though, in rebuking Judas likewise rebukes that tendency for us to break each other rather than to strengthen each other.  Contrary to popular belief, His rebuke about the poor always being with us has nothing to do with a disregard for the poor: read through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and you’ll see just how heavily an emphasis Jesus puts on standing with and aiding the poor.  No, Jesus is in fact quoting an Old Testament verse, at least in part: Deuteronomy 15:11 says there will always be the poor and needy in the land, and thus God commands us to be generous with them.

But as we’ve seen, Judas isn’t generous with the poor, because the Apostles themselves are poor and itinerant, and Judas steals from them.  Jesus is telling Judas that he will always have the poor with him because when you steal from the poor, they will generally remain poor.

And likewise, just as if you take from someone who is materially poor, they tend to stay materially poor, so too if you harm a person who is already spiritually poor, they will often remain spiritually poor.  It is a vicious cycle that we put one another in, even though we have already been given the tools to break out of that cycle by this itinerant carpenter from Galilee whom we call the Christ.

I have heard from many of you—too many of you—of your own stories of having been torn down by people claiming to believe in that same Christ.  And I am so very, very sorry that you have experienced such treatment from people who, despite their faith, have ended up acting more like Judas in this passage than like Mary.

Being prayerful means considering not only our own prayers to God, but the prayers of those around us.  It means praying in a community.  It means praying in the world as it has been presented to us, not necessarily the world that we might hold out indefinitely for.  It means praying for people we might never thought we’d pray for.  It means praying with more than just words.  It means praying with your whole selves.  It means praying before the feet of Jesus as Mary once did.

What an amazing charge to be entrusted with as a church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 21, 2014

(original photo credit: