Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Realizing How Much You Have"

Jeremiah 22:11-17

11 This is what the Lord says about Shallum son of Judah’s King Josiah, who succeeded his father Josiah as king but who is now gone from this place: He will never return! 12 He will die where he’s been exiled and never see this land again. 13 How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. 14 He says, “I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.” 15 Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! 16 He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the Lord. 17 But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week One

The 57-year-old pastor hardly seemed like the most worthy candidate for an experiment in homelessness.  He had a family and a thriving megachurch in Sacramento, California, and besides, he had already tried it out for a few days already—living on the streets for a short time as a part of a fundraiser for a mission to provide more food and shelter to Sacramento’s homeless population.  What more could he learn about just how much he already had by doing it again?

But return to the streets Pastor Rick Cole did, this time for two weeks.  And the experience was utterly and completely transformative.  I’ll let Pastor Rick tell you himself, through an interview with Harry Smith of NBC News:

“I’ve walked past people that stay in some of the places of homelessness.  And really almost not even noticed them, not considered their plight and what’s going on in their life.  Now I was living among them,” Cole (said).  “I think I began to experience how people ignore others.  I became the one ignored.  People walked by me like I didn’t exist.”

“It might be like, man, those people just need to get a job.  They need to get themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves,” Cole said of attitudes he’d heard—and shared at times—before his two-week stretch on the streets…

“Once we try to go to sleep at night, it was really sketchy because there’s people walking up and down this river all night long.  So you wake up kind of startled, not sure what’s going on.  So it felt, actually, very insecure.”

After the experience, Cole said the “holes” he found were filled with addiction and mental illness, bad breaks and bad decisions.  Who was he not to help?

“They matter to God.  They matter to me, and now I’m trying to figure out why they didn’t matter to me before.”

Okay, I have to cave and admit that it is officially the holiday season, even though I really wish it wasn’t.  Hear me out, now—how many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Hear Hannah’s words about this experience:

If you have a front door, you have so much more than the people in the villages of Ghana.  Imagine your family living in a one-room house made of mud, with no running water or electricity.  Imagine never traveling more than a few miles from you home, always on foot.  Yet the people in Ghana appreciate what they have, even though it seemed to me when we visited them like they had nothing at all.  They take pride in their homes by sweeping them out daily, and they keep their clothes clean.  People used to say to me, “You don’t realize how lucky you are,” and I would just brush it off.  It was true, of course; I just needed to recognize it.

But realizing what you have can be tough.  First you need to start by acknowledging that you have a good life.

And acknowledging that you already have a good life is exactly what Jeremiah is demanding of King Jehoiakim of Judah.

Now, this requires some explanation, so bear with me here: Jehoiakim and Shallum are brothers—they are the sons of the last righteous king of Judah, Josiah, who recovered the Torah scroll and reinstituted the worship of YHWH after many, many years of worship of idols in the Holy Land.  Shallum only reigns for about three months before being deposed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II in 608 BCE; he gets packed off to captivity in Egypt, and we never hear from him again—he will, in fact, die in exile in Egypt.  It’s like a reality television show, “Judah’s Next Top Monarch,” and Shallum gets voted off in the first episode.

But there would be reason to vote him off—in just those three months of his kingship, he managed to completely disregard the religious reforms of his father Josiah, meaning there was an immediate return to the worship of idols.  Then after Shallum gets voted off the island, Jehoiakim rules Judah for eleven years, until 597 BCE.  As it happens, he is no better than his big bro, but we’ll get to that.

So this is the time frame in which this particular prophecy from Jeremiah happens—about 600 years before the birth of Christ.  And to put that into perspective, 600 years ago, Columbus had not yet sailed to North America; in fact, in the year 1414, he would not be born yet for another 38 years.

And here’s the thing: the conquering of Judah that will happen about 10-20 years after this passage, in 586 BCE, (and the destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple to YHWH) so utterly defines Israel’s identity and history as a conquered people that over six hundred years later, it still gets referenced in parts of the New Testament, especially in Revelation.  That’s how big a deal this defeat will be, though, like I said, at this point in Jeremiah’s career, we are at least a decade away from it.

But Jeremiah is already warning King Jehoiakim about it—the coming Babylonian army, Jeremiah says elsewhere in his book, is divine punishment for the exact sorts of sins that he lists off here to Jehoiakim: refusing to pay his employees, building himself grand and unnecessary palaces, and cruelly “spill(ing) the blood of the innocent” and “oppress(ing) his subjects.”

And if you think we don’t practice those exact same sorts of sins today, I have news for you.  Wage theft—the not paying or underpaying of one’s employees—is a practice that has cost American workers literally hundreds of millions ofdollars of rightfully earned wages.  The building of grand and unnecessary palaces?  Well, maybe not as much here in Longview, but elsewhere, as nearby as Seattle, you can pick up a 17,000 square foot house for a cool $11.8 million.

And spilling the blood of the innocent and oppressing the people?  I would be remiss if I didn’t at least speak of Ferguson, Missouri, today.  A lot of folks have said to me that this isn’t about race, but let’s consider the title of the sermon for a minute: realizing how much you have.  And I look out on our little congregation and I see mostly white faces, including my own.  Do any of us wonder if our lives might be different if we woke up tomorrow and were African-American?  Do we think there will be people out there who would treat us differently because of that one change, even if in every other respect we were to wake up tomorrow exactly the same?

Because while I’m white, I’m also ethnic—I’m Armenian-American, and just ambiguously enough that most folks can’t peg my ethnicity.  In my still-young life, I have had racial slurs hurled at me from people who thought I was Chinese, Jewish, and Arab.  And I’m white.  So let’s consider what people of color go through, then, and maybe we might realize what privilege we have in being white.

We don’t need a show of hands here, but is my talking about this making any of y’all feel a bit uncomfortable?  Good.  Sometimes that’s what preaching needs to do.  I’m not entirely comfortable right now, either—I was nervous putting this into the sermon, because I know it’s easier for me to just talk about the Christmas season.  But being Christian has never, should never, be about doing what is easy versus doing, ultimately, what is right.

And so Jeremiah lays all of this at the feet of the king, and rightfully so, because in the absolute monarchies of old, that is exactly where the buck stopped: the throne.  And in our own lives, ultimately, the buck stops with us as well.  We can choose, every day, if we are going to be a good person and a faithful follower of Jesus, or not.

That is why Jehoiakim’s excesses so galls the prophet Jeremiah, and ultimately, so galls God.  He could easily choose to follow in the footsteps of his righteous father, King Josiah, and he chooses not to.  Similarly, we can choose to follow in the footsteps of our own righteous father, God, and yet we still will at times choose not to.  Which is why we need prophets like Jeremiah in the first place, to hold us accountable to tell us when and where we are slipping.

Part of where we slip, though, is so often forgetting how much we have--and not just the possessions, but the experiences, the memories, the stories that make up our lives as well.

It is partly why I ended up doing this year’s Advent sermon series on Jeremiah.  In years past, my Advent series have usually been on Isaiah, because Isaiah is the Hebrew Bible prophet who most explicitly foretells the coming of Jesus: it is Isaiah whose book prophesies “behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and she shall call him Emanuel, which means God-with-us,” and it is Isaiah whose book prophesies the coming of the suffering servant to set the people free.

But Isaiah lived long before the Babylonian exile.  He did not live to see everything taken from his nation and his religion.  He had things that Jeremiah could only dream of having.  As do we.

Harken back to the story of Pastor Rick at the very beginning of my sermon: it wasn’t just the money that he had and the homeless did not: he talked so much about the regard and respect that people gave him as a pastor that was not given to him as a homeless man.

Think of what you have—what other people would long to have and give anything to have.  And then ask yourself how, instead of hoarding it for yourself like a certain king of Judah, you can begin to give it away, bit by bit, piece by piece, as your gift to a desperate world this Christmas.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 30, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An Open Letter to Those Who Have Said "It Isn't About Race/Racism"


A lot of things have been said already about Ferguson.  I have friends who say they are already tired of hearing about it.

But I'd ask that you bear with me here, because I don't think transformations of heart and mindset and soul happen at our convenience.

I'm not black.  I identify as white.  But I'm also ambiguously ethnic enough that most people can guess that I'm not a WASP but don't know what my ancestry (Armenian) actually is.

Here's the deal.  I have also experienced racism.  Not towards my own race, mind you.  But towards whatever people thought my race was.

When I was in the fifth grade, I got called a "Chinese ****" by one boy during a basketball tryout.

In the third grade (just a couple of years after Desert Storm), I had a soccer coach who had us play a pretend "World Cup" drill with one another in practice.  We each got assigned different nations.  My teammates mostly got standard-issue European nations.  I got Iraq.

When I was a junior in high school (only a year after 9/11), a TSA agent saw the cross I wear around my neck and asked me, "Why would you wear that?"

When I was home from college one winter break and out driving around, a man who took the same exit off the highway as me sped up, looked over at me, and hurled an anti-Semitic slur as he passed.

When I was a senior in college, had rather shaggy facial hair, and was traveling with my debate team, a ticket agent at the airport saw my name on my driver's license, bugged her eyes, and asked, "Is that really your name?"

If you don't think racism is an issue today, let me repeat this: I'm WHITE.  I'm a white, straight, Christian man in America.  I hit the privilege jackpot.  And even I have experienced racism solely because I don't look like what most white people look like.

Just imagine what people of color experience on a regular basis.

Imagine those people of color being told by white people like you and me that they're just "making that up" or "that can't have really happened," like they're children who claim to see monsters under the bed.

Can you understand, even a little, why they might be upset and hurting and mourning at what has happened this week in Ferguson?

Look--tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  And that day, we usually remember the pilgrims and their funny-looking hats.  But the first-ever Thanksgiving holiday was instituted by President Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, when a lot of people probably didn't feel like they had a lot to be thankful for.

Yet when our nation was at its most divided, someone still saw fit to set aside and proclaim a day of Thanksgiving.  And ever since then, that day has been, if not about empathy, at least about hearing people out, because we have to sit around the table and listen to our oddball family members with the crazy political opinions we don't agree with as we stuff our faces full of turkey before retiring to the couch to vegetate, watch football, and daydream of how we are going to trample one another on Black Friday.

So this Thanksgiving, please reach for empathy.  Reach for empathy for your brothers and sisters who don't look like you, whose lives are still affected all the time solely because they don't look like you.  Reach for empathy across this divide that still exists between our experiences.  Reach for empathy outside of the bubble of your own privilege and place in society.  And reach for empathy enough to listen to other peoples' stories and experiences rather than try to drown them out or immediately try to discredit them as outliers or "not what must have really happened."

Do that, and I promise you, the seeds for a transformation into a better, more loving world and nation will have been planted.

Thanks for reading.  Have a safe and blessed Thanksgiving.

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Syrophoenician Woman Exists Today, and Her Name is Michael Brown

In my preaching class at seminary, I was assigned a doozy of a text for my first graded sermon: Mark 7:24-30, which conveys the story of an otherwise anonymous Syrophoenician woman confronting Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter back home:

24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone. (Common English Bible)

"The children have to be fed first.  It isn't right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs."

"Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

"Good answer!"

What the hell kind of a back-and-forth is that to have over exorcising a demon-possessed little girl?

In short, a racist one.  Or, at least, an ethnocentric one.  This is from the sermon I ended up preaching, with my knees a-knocking behind my lectern:

Still, this woman comes to Him. She comes to Jesus with her desperation and her fear, but above all else, she comes to Jesus with her deep and abiding love and loyalty to her precious daughter. There is no other reason given for why the woman would have done something so out of the ordinary–to address a foreign man without being in the company of another man, and then having the tremendous courage to rebut this foreigner in the face of what is a horrific racial slur, for, when Jesus continually makes note of how He is sent to tend to the “children,” to God’s children, there can be little doubt who He is referring to when He uses the word “dogs.”...

Still, this woman comes to Him. And here is where God is, perhaps, more human than we would ever want to believe or imagine, because God is, through Jesus, exhibiting not what is best in us, but what is worst in us. We want to believe that God will watch over us, protect us, walk beside us and love us wholeheartedly as we live as God’s children in the creation, but that simply is not what happens here. What Jesus initially shows this powerless woman is not love. Instead, God, through Jesus, is forced to learn openness and inclusive, positive love from an anonymous, faceless, nameless woman, the dog who must beg for the children’s crumbs, who must beg for her daughter’s life. 

Yet as soon as God does learn this, God does right by this woman, and in so doing, we can take reassurance in the knowledge that eventually, somehow, someway, God will do, within God’s power, what is right by God’s children, not merely what is easy or convenient. 

Hopefully you can understand now why I was so nervous.  I was a 23-year-old seminary student getting up in front of a class full of fellow holy rollers and basically accusing the Son of the One True God, the Messiah, my Lord and Savior, of uttering a racial or ethnic slur by inferring that the Syrophoenicians (or Canaanites, in Matthew's version of this story) are dogs.  It was only slightly presumptuous of me.

The problem for me was, I couldn't figure out any other way to interpret the story without some serious mental gymnastics or the outright inserting of my wants into the text.  I read commentaries that basically said, "Jesus was probably being facetious here" with absolutely zero reasons as to why, or that basically said, "Jesus was testing the woman" with similarly no reasons as to why, and I wanted to scream at all of the scholarly cop-outs I was seeing when in reality what I was reading in Scripture was an unfair put-down of this no-name woman.

While Jesus learns in a split second the openness and positive love, we--his followers here today--are still struggling on the uptake and have been for the past two thousand years.  We--and by we, I am referring primarily to white, predominantly Christian, Americans--haven't gotten it that what we so often offer to our differently colored brothers and sisters are the crumbs from our table, and then we act outraged when our magnanimous crumb-offer is understandably rejected.

I don't know if Officer Darren Wilson is guilty of murder or manslaughter when he shot Mike Brown that day in August.  But the whole point of the grand jury--of any grand jury--isn't to determine guilt, but to determine if there is enough evidence that one's guilt or innocence needs to be a topic of further conversation in our courts.  And I have to think it does, because otherwise, not even the crumbs will have fallen from our table of justice.

Which is exactly what happened last night.  Not even a crumb of justice was proffered to a people who have been starved of it for so very, very long.

Ever since emancipation, we have demanded of the African-Americans whose ancestors were hauled here in chains, whose families were broken off and bought and sold at market, whose women were raped, whose bodies were beaten and whipped and scourged, that they stand up solidly while we kept kneecapping them at every opportunity with segregation ordinances, poll taxes, literacy tests, and, today, voter ID laws (yep, I went there).

The crumbs of justice, meanwhile, have dried up, even as the names of the African-American dead from incidents with law enforcement stack up.  Amadou Diallo.  Kathryn Johnston.  Henry Glover.  Oscar Grant.  Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr.  Ayana Stanley Jones.  Kendrec McDade.  Trayvon Martin.  Eric Garner.  Michael Brown.  And now, Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice.

And this list is by no means exhaustive.  Not even close.

Law enforcement are oftentimes our heroes.  I vividly remember the immense gratitude I felt for the Boston PD when it was announced they had safely apprehended Dzhokar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, in no small part because my younger sister lives in Boston.

But can we have our heroes minus the racially tinged taking of human life?  Can we enforce and serve justice by giving far more than the crumbs to the people who were once viewed in this country as the Syrophoenician dogs?

Can we continue to live and love and kingdom-build in a country where one standard of justice exists for the Israelites and another standard for the Syrophoenicians?

Or are we forever condemned to a life of comparing those different than us to the dogs beneath our kitchen tables, begging us for scraps?

That choice, like most spiritual choices, is ours, fellow white Christian Americans.  Believe it or not, it really is.  We can choose to stand up and say that justice was not done, to demand changes from the elected officials of Saint Louis County, Ferguson, and all of Missouri.  We can threaten them with our votes, our donations, and our column inches.  We can do all of that, because we have the privilege to do so.

But choose wrongly, choose the side of the oppressor--the side that benefits us at the expense of our brothers and sisters of color--and I genuinely fear that we will have succeeded only in ensuring our own damnation.

Last night in Ferguson was no exception to that.  We rightfully condemn the rioting and its attendant destruction, and yet we fail to see the plank in our own eye that helps to uphold a racist and broken system in which black lives are simply not valued as much as ours are.  And for that, I have no doubt that the God who made heaven and earth--and not as a white man--is judging us.

Jesus moved past the preconceptions of this other people who shared the land with Him.  But will we ever do as He says--to do likewise?

We have found our role model in Scripture.  And if we fail to follow His example now, the devaluation of the lives of people of color in this nation we share isn't just on our slave-holding ancestors, it is on us as well.

Are you prepared to have to live with that burden?  And if not, what are you prepared to do to unshackle our kingdom from it?

Yours in Christ,

PS: Below are several links to words penned on Ferguson by people of color whose writing I respect and follow.  I cannot act as though I am prepared to give voice to my brothers and sisters without doing so on the one platform I have that has the largest breadth of reach--here, on my blog.  Each of these folks has a much bigger platform than I do, but this isn't about page clicks.  Hear their words, and please do not try to drown them out or contradict their experiences.  Just listen to them.

Jamelle Bouie

Jonathan Capeheart

Christena Cleveland

Charles M. Blow

Tracie Thoms

Sunday, November 23, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Marks of a True Christian"

Romans 12:9-18

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. 18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. (Common English Bible)

“The Marks of a True Christian,” Romans 12:9-18

The ballplayer and the journalist enjoyed an incredibly rich friendship together—uncommon, considering that journalists aren’t really supposed to get too attached to the subjects they write about, you know, ethically speaking, in order to maintain their objectivity.  But Joe Posnanski couldn’t help but be attached to Buck O’Neil—nobody could, really.  Buck O’Neil was part of the heart and soul of the Negro Leagues all the way back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, before Jackie Robinson broke the almighty color barrier in 1947, and he broke a color barrier himself—in 1962, the Chicago Cubs hired Buck as the first coach of color in the major leagues.  Buck was up for admittance to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2006 as a part of a special, one-time vote for Negro Leagues ballplayers and managers, and he just missed the cut. 

Rather than be bitter at his exclusion, he instead traveled to Cooperstown and spoke at the inclusion of the other seventeen who had made it, and as part of his speech, he led the assembled crowd in a simple sung refrain: “The greatest thing in all my life is loving you.”

Buck O’Neil died less than three months later.

This year, Joe Posnanski—the sportswriter—wrote about his friendship with Buck, and this is one of the several anecdotes he shared:

We were in Houston, at a ballgame, and I saw a man steal a foul ball from a boy.  It was flagrant—the man just took the ball right away from the boy, and he held it up high like it was the head of Medusa, and I said: “Would you look at this jerk?”

“What’s that?” Buck said.

“That guy down there, he just took that ball away from that kid.”

Buck considered the situation.  He said, “Don’t be so hard on him.  He might have a kid of his own at home.”

“Wait a minute,” I said to Buck.  “If he’s got a kid, why didn’t he bring him to the ballgame?”

I smiled triumphantly.  But Buck did not hesitate.

“Maybe,” he said, “the kid is sick.”

Okay, probably the guy didn’t have a sick kid at home, but isn’t it remarkable that someone who has been around as long as, say, Buck O’Neil has (and who has experienced the kind of racism that Buck would have in the US in, say, the 1930’s) does not give into that immediate cynicism and rather tries to see the entire person behind the action, not out of gullibility but out of real, authentic goodness?

That is a mark of a true person.  It is a mark, I think, that Paul would say here in Romans 12 is of a true Christian.  And that is what we are going to be talking about today, in the sermon I auctioned off as a part of our silent auction back in July, which was won by Shanae Strite!  Shanae asked me for a sermon on Romans 12, but with a specific eye towards how we do not act in the ways Paul instructs us to, especially due to the sheer amount of gadgets and gizmos we have to distract us from one another these days: social media, smartphones, tablets, and more.

I have to state right off the bat that this is a very convicting subject for me, by which I mean that to be completely honest, I’m not sure there is a way for me to give this sermon without being thoroughly hypocritical.  I love my iPhone and my ThinkPad and my Twitter account and as for my iPad…well…look at what I’m preaching from.

Taking lessons from me today is going to be a little like taking pointers on how to fly from an ostrich, or accepting help from a tobacco executive on how to quit smoking.  This is very much the blind leading the blind.  But I do think this is a subject that is pressing for all generations because, if you’ll look behind me at the PowerPoint image for this sermon, it’s a black-and-white photograph of an old-timey public bus, chock full of people in every seat, and each of them, rather than conversing with one another, has their newspaper open instead.  Same basic concept, just a different decade.

So we all find things to distract us from each other, okay.  But it feels worse today than it did 10 or 20 years ago, right?  But why?  Shanae’s own words capture the “why” quite well.  She wrote to me:

Social media, smart phones, and the internet in general are helping us produce profiles with projected egos containing edited and filtered selfies and providing us with a platform of show and tell.

“Hey, look at what I ate today.”

“Hey, look at my material things.”

“Hey, look at how sweet my significant other is.”

And hey, look at all of these misinformed prejudgments and opinions I have that spawn unnecessary and heated debates among friends and sometimes causing families to be divided.  It has all become complicated and distracting.

“You didn’t text me back right away!”

“Why did you like your ex-girlfriend’s status?!”

“Ebola is an American epidemic!”

Just time out.  Let’s rewind.

When did life become a competition?

When did owning and being on the newest smartphone begin to matter more than helping others, or spending quality time with the person right next to you?

More importantly, why do loved ones have to compete for our attention?

In our need to be more connected with the wider world, we have become disconnected from the closer world—the world of those closest to us, like our families, like our loved ones, like, dare I say it, our church.  Paul says here to love each other like members of our family, and, well, church *is* a family.  So does that mean we have to treat everyone like they disagree with us on casserole recipes?

Maybe today, but certainly not when Paul was writing.  Paul himself had no family to speak of—he never married, never had any children—in a time when not having a family was an absolutely lethal situation, especially when you grew old and could no longer work.  Today, we rely on our pensions and Social Security and savings for our retirees’ livelihood; back then, there was none of that.  The church, then, was Paul’s family in every sense of the word.

Treating people like family begins with seeing people as family, which means you see them, warts and all.  Your weird uncle with the off-putting sense of humor.  Your cousin with the wacky survivalist political views.  Or that guy who swiped the baseball off of a little kid.  He’s somebody’s son too, probably somebody’s brother and cousin as well, maybe somebody’s father.

Are you willing to see him as a whole person?  It’s harder to do that, I know.  We like our antagonists to be cartoon villains.  We like for them to be easy to dislike, because not only are our minds already made up, but we also tend to feel better disliking someone who is so, well, dislikable, because it means it is their fault and not ours for disliking them.

What on earth does any of this have to do with telecommunications and social media and the Internet?  Well…isn’t it often easier for you to argue with someone behind a phone, or a keyboard, or a computer than it is face-to-face?  Isn’t easier for us to demonize the text or the voice than the whole person?  Isn’t it sometimes tempting to be crueler and meaner from a distance than close up?

Of course, Paul is hardly the model for charitable Christian communication over long distances; after all, he’s the guy who wrote to the Galatians saying—probably facetiously, but that’s the problem with text messages, and it isn’t like Biblical Greek had emojis—that he wishes those who were unsettling them over the question of circumcision would castrate themselves (get it?).  In this way, I guess reading his words here in Romans makes me feel a little bit better about giving this sermon: a good message can still potentially come from a hypocritical messenger.

And that should be good news for each of us, because that is what our own lives of faith and our own testaments to Christ are: good messages from hypocritical and fragile messengers.  We are all trying to live out the lessons of a perfect Messiah in our broken and imperfect lives.

Perhaps the lasting impact of the Internet age is that we are simply quicker at spreading our imperfectness to one another across the earth.  But it certainly does not have to be that way.  Because we are still presented with a choice—and we always have been.  A choice to look beyond the fa├žade and past the first impression and underneath the surface that so often our use of technology only takes us.  A choice to plumb deep the depths of human character, with all of its foibles and quirks, in search for that spark of divinity that God implanted in each of us as we were being fearfully and wonderfully made in His hands.

A choice to engage with one another just long enough and thoughtfully enough to see in one another the imago dei—the image of God—that we bear as living vessels.  And so may we put down our papers, and turn off our phones, and disconnect from the frenetic electronic pulse of the 21st century, and then, with our eyes cast upwards, we shall see the face of God.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 23, 2014

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part III: I Belong on Land

(alternatively titled: How I Accidentally Signed Up to Water-Torture Myself)

(This post is the third of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle.  You can read parts one and two here and here. ~E.A.)

In gym class my freshman year in high school, I got a B.  How does one get a B in gym, you ask?  How can anyone not get an A?  After all, those who can't do teach instead, and those who can't teach, they teach gym (apologies to gym teachers everywhere :) ).

I got a B because I was the slowest swimmer in the entire class.  Even though I had near-perfect attendance and did everything else in the class just fine, my swimming was so glacial that a preschool swimming teacher at the Y would probably have marked me down for it.

Now, please don't misunderstand me: I *can* swim.  If thrown into the proverbial deep end, I can tread water like a pro, I can swim both forwards and backwards with the breaststroke and backstroke, and I can make physical motions that vaguely resemble a sidestroke.

Carrie, though, remains unconvinced of my rudimentary swimming prowess and keeps swearing that she'll sign me up for swimming lessons one day.  Meanwhile, I remain perfectly happy and dry on land.  Until our honeymoon, that is.

We joked that the theme of our honeymoon was "Let's see how much water Carrie can throw Eric into," because we did swimming, kayaking, and snorkeling during our time away (we also did hot tubbing, but even a klutz like me can manage that, so that doesn't count).  On the predawn drive out to the Milford Sound for our kayaking adventures, we passed the Mirror Lakes.  Can you guess how they got their name?

(that little sign in the middle says "Mirror Lakes" in reverse so that it reads correctly in the water's reflection!)

There's plenty of fun outdoor sightseeing to do, including things you come across quite by happenstance, like a pro cycling race (which I maintain is still an exciting thing to watch, despite my pop pop's protestations that "all they do is pedal.")  Here's the breakaway quartet:

...and then several minutes later came the peloton (the main pack of cyclists):

I even snapped a decent pic of the poor chap in last place:

I feel ya, mate, I've been there.  In high school gym class almost 15 years ago, but still.

C and I also went snorkeling with the dolphins and seals off the coast of Kaikoura.  Or, rather, we both went snorkeling with the seals, and C went snorkeling with the dolphins while I managed to inhale loads of salt water *near* the dolphins.  For my first-ever snorkeling experience, we had inadvertently chosen an open ocean dive with swells of one or two meters and quite choppy water...which meant that, even though I was in a fully-buoyant wetsuit, I still didn't last more than a minute or two on each dive as I fought the sensation of drowning (part of which I am sure was exacerbated by my Lamaze-esque habit of forgetting to breathe when I panic, or by the fact that I had my head down too low to the swells, allowing more salt water to enter, which rather defeats the purpose of a snorkel).  The entire sum of those factors was that it felt, I imagine, like what drowning might be like, even if I was in no immediate danger of doing so.

And that is how I accidentally ended up waterboarding myself on my honeymoon.  Fortunately, when we went back out snorkeling in the afternoon to see the seals, it was very close to the bay and the water was much calmer.  I did just fine.

I will say, though, in my defense, that going out in the water can be quite scary, especially if it looks like this, the rapids in the park near Milford Sound called The Chasm (again, guess how it got its name):

And water--via snow--is capable of the massive avalanches that leave utterly bare paths in their wake, like these that we saw above the Blue Lakes on our climb to the Tasman Glacier Lake on Mt. Cook:

Nevertheless, it was difficult for me to relax enough to even go back out onto the water...I had to be cajoled into it by the well-meaning folks running the seal swim, and I have to think their effort was all part of the more relaxed, informal nature of New Zealand.  I mean, how many of us worry about making our flights on time here in the States?  Well, in NZ, this is how the flight monitor in Auckland reads:

That would be a digital sign telling the passengers for eleven upcoming international flights to relax.

And while walking around the Parnell neighborhood of Auckland, C and I came across this business, whose office hours notice I had to photograph, since I really need to make them my own office hours here at the church:

It's always reassuring to come across establishments that clearly don't take themselves too seriously, but that's part of the Kiwi culture, I think.  Across the country, C and I encountered loads of people whose good humor and geniality would put even the most jovial of Yanks to shame.  Certainly there are outliers and exceptions to every rule, but the impression we both came away with was that there is more concern here for the overall person rather than simply what they can produce or contribute or manufacture.  All of it led to less visible stress that we could see, even in places off the beaten tourist paths.  And coming from one sometimes stressed-out American, even when he is on dry land, that is a lesson I am trying to carry back with me to the US.  Which naturally stresses me out even more.

It is a deranged hamster wheel I run on.

Stay tuned for part four--a much more serious post--on the many monuments and memorials we saw in NZ, commemorating both European and Maori history, and on the importance of memory as not just an individual trait, but a social trait, entitled "The Cloud Piercer's Lament...Or, On Monuments to Memories")

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part II: What We Ate

(alternatively titled: An Ode to Lamb Burgers)

(This post is the second of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle. ~E.A.)

For me, there is, and always has been (at least since I graduated to baby food to solids) something happy and joyous about sitting down to a meal.  Part of that I am sure is the satiating of my hanger (I'm rather prone to getting hangry), and another part of it is, I am equally sure, simply because I am a disgusting glutton, but part of it is also spiritual.  Meals are what celebrate the liberation of the Israelites out of slavery, the liberation of us all out of sin (via the Last Supper), as well as more civic holidays like Thanksgiving (What? That's around the corner?! Holy crap).

Meal-sharing really is a Biblical thing--when the prodigal son returns to his father, shamed and chastened, the forgiving father has the fatted calf slaughtered and served in a celebratory banquet.  Much of Jesus' teaching takes place around a dinner table, be it at Simon the Pharisee's palatial digs or at Mary and Martha's more humble abode in Bethany.  And in Psalm 23, far and away the most famous of them all, we may all know how it begins ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...") but how it ends includes the verse "you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies."

Even though New Zealand is far from an enemy (in fact, almost across the board, the Kiwis we met were friendly, open, and exceedingly gracious hosts), Carrie and I sat at tables prepared across the country: some prepared by others, and some prepared by ourselves.

The first table, though, came in Hong Kong (our exploits there you can read about here), when we stumbled entirely by accident upon a second-floor dim sum joint that was incredibly endearing to us: not only was the carpet, walls, and decor likely from the 1970s or so, but the clientele largely consisted of two demographics: elderly men and women, and their middle-aged children accompanying them to breakfast.

(As an aside, stumbling entirely by accident was pretty much our default mode of transportation in Hong Kong.  The only reason we even knew which stop to get off at on the bus was because some well-meaning schoolchildren got to practice their English by reading the bus stops off to us, since we of course had no idea where we were.)

This restaurant has communal tables, and I have to say that as a card-carrying introvert, I actually heartily endorse the use of communal tables in restaurants.  We sat across from two different couples--one younger and one older, and while C and I spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English, the smiles and gestures were enough to communicate our enjoyment of the meals we were having, and that truly did add to the richness of what we were experiencing.

The true culinary richness of our trip would come in New Zealand, though: we landed in Auckland from Hong Kong on C's birthday, and so I took her to The Grove, a restaurant I researched extensively and booked weeks beforehand for this evening.  It was homework well worth doing.

I only have a picture of one of the five courses we ate, but it was by far the most virtuousic one, ash-baked parsnip with with apples and carmelized red endives:

(We also had, if you clicked on the link above which takes you to their menu, the ika mata, asparagus and pigeon ravioli, a cheese course, and then our first taste of NZ lamb, which of course was fantastic, even though I was completely stuffed by that point).  The prices are in New Zealand dollars, which the US dollar exchanges favorably with, so the prices were actually lower for us than what are quoted.  In terms of the food itself, it was superlatively good.  More on that later, though.)

I think another part of the reason the price of the meal was so cheap relative to fine dining in America is that, well, there isn't as much of a dining culture in New Zealand--though it is certainly growing.  Our server asked if we needed the concept of prix fixe (or fixed price) explained to us, and, well, after seeing this particular Subway advert in a local pamphlet, I couldn't blame her:

Custom-made right in front of my eyes?!  It's like fracking magic!  And you say it's my choice whether to toast it or not?  Well, paint my tongue purple and call me Charlie the unicorn, that's just the most luxurious thing I've ever heard of!

(Now, I'm not trying to be a snob here--in point of fact, I've eaten at Subway dozens of times in my life.  But when you make it sound like a magic show that one of your "sandwich artists" (a term I find hilarious for so many reasons) can slap some cold cuts and veggies on a bun with a smell that I both love and hate simultaneously, I'm sorry, but we might be operating with different assumptions on what constitutes a nice meal.)

However, I'm still a rube myself, as *my* own idea of a nice meal consists of a bowl of these for breakfast, a cereal that comes from Australia but that criminally I have never seen anywhere in the US:

You know those obnoxious Foster's commercials that say that Foster's is Australian for beer? You know, these?  Well, I can say definitively that Weet-Bix Crunchy Honey is Australian for crack.  I went through two half-kilo boxes while we were there.

Of course, cereal may be quite basic, but you also don't really care when your view from your dining room (aka our rented campervan) is this:

Or this:

I *did* alternatively title this post "An Ode to Lamb Burgers," and I admit, I haven't even gotten there yet, but oh, what a lamb burger it was, courtesy of the cult-like, famous Fergburger in Queenstown:

The correct term, though, according to the Fergburger menu, is the "Little Lamby burger."  (If you think that's at all barbaric, you might be interested in their vegetarian burger, the "Holier Than Thou" burger.  Yes, that is its real name.)

Why is the lamb so good?  (And the venison, for that matter.)  Because there really are sheep everywhere on the South Island: I couldn't tell you how many herds Carrie and I passed while driving through the different motorways.  It's all local, it's all fresh, and there's tons of it.  None of this packing food away in 18-wheelers to haul it halfway across a giant-sized country like, say, I don't know, the US, only for that food to lose freshness the whole time it's in transit.  Nope, none of that here.

We enjoyed other barbaric meals too, like this whitebait fritter in Auckland:

Look closely.  You see those little black dots at the ends of the little fishes?  Those are eyes.  We ate those whitebaits whole.  And they were fan-freaking-tastic.

In fact, all of the seafood we ate there was exquisite.  Down the mountain a ways from Mt. Cook (stay tuned for those escapades in a later post), there was a salmon farm where you could feed the salmon, then have them butcher the salmon in back, and pick up said butchered fillets fresh off the ice, fillets that had been swimming happily in the water just that morning.

NZ is also much more British than we are, and part of that is all of the tea-drinking they do there.  Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that they do indeed derive their coffee inspiration from one of the best cities in which to get coffee:

Finally, one must always take care when eating outdoors in NZ, because much as they are here, the seagulls are utterly uncivilized and without manners, and will attack an abandoned table of food before your seat has gotten cold.  This particular feller in the coastal town of Kaikoura absolutely loved the butter than our dining neighbors left behind, and is chowing down on said buttery goodness with single-minded zeal:

I didn't try talking to him/her, but I assume that if I did, it would have sounded exactly like the seagulls in Finding Nemo.  That butter was "Mine, mine mine!"

And that really is the antithesis of the joy of sharing a meal, you know?  Okay, your meal is yours, yours, yours (and God knows I'm terrible at sharing when it comes to my dinner), but the communal aspect of meal-sharing is, I have to think, the difference between simply eating to survive and eating to thrive.

Which is what leads me to the final culinary experience worth writing about--one that actually took place stateside, the day after Carrie and I arrived stateside in San Francisco, when we had a reservation to The French Laundry in Napa with Russ, my pastor and mentor from FCC Concord, and his wife Kelli.  This is the menu (which they let you take with you as a keepsake) from our lunch:

You may notice the whopping prix fixe amount of $295.00.  Even with gratuity already included, that's a heck of a lot of clams to spend on one meal, and more than double what both our meals cost at The Grove.  C and I were able to afford this because of the love offering my congregation insisted on so generously giving us as a wedding present.  C and I were (and are) incredibly grateful, and considering the celebratory nature of the gift, we wanted to do something festive with it, so...The French Laundry it was!

And while it was a festive, incredibly enjoyable meal, I am about to speak some culinary heresy: C and I were unanimous that the cuisine at The Grove was better than that at The French Laundry.  Specifically, the inventiveness of a couple of the dishes at The Grove simply wowed us--amazing things were being done with relatively humble ingredients like coconut and parsnip, and while all of the dishes at The French Laundry tasted good, many of them were also rather safe and less exciting.

But the meal was perfectly paced and an utterly delightful way to spend three-and-a-quarter hours with just three other people, even three other people whom I love.  As that card-carrying introvert, I'm liable to go catatonic if placed in such close quarters with the same people for that long.  But it never felt that long, not once.

So we bookended our honeymoon with two amazing meals: one consisting of the best dishes we had ever tasted, and the other consisting of the best eating experience we had ever had.  And going forward in our marriage together, I am sure that these two shall collectively act as the gold standard to which we judge all future meals that we have the pleasure to share together.

(And stay tuned for the next post in this series: "I Belong on Land.  Or: How I Accidentally Signed Up to Water-Torture Myself")

Yours in Christ,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part I: Hong Kong Prologue

(alternatively titled: Never Give Interviews While Jet-Lagged)

(This post is the first of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle. ~E.A.)

It so happens that when booking air tickets to New Zealand, you have two main options: book a flight to somewhere in Asia or Australia and then a connecting flight to Auckland, or you can book a rare nonstop to Auckland but pay a lot more money.  Carrie and I decided to do the former, which meant a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong after our red-eye out of San Francisco.

Because I'm a history and architecture nerd (as opposed to being a historian or architect, both things I am emphatically not and would likely be horrible at), we took the train from the airport to Kowloon to visit two major sites: the Kowloon Walled City and the Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Getting there took, as I mentioned, the train, which was one of the best I've ever been on, and then a double-decker bus, which might have been one of the worst I've ever been on, as C and I spent the next several minutes sitting atop this monstrosity as it careened down Prince Edward Road in the hands of a madman driver who I am convinced thought the Hong Kong rush hour was simply a gigantic game of bumper cars.

It was all worth it, though, because the Walled City park is breathtaking.  The Walled City itself has its roots in the Chinese middle ages, but more recently served as a British military fort, leaving behind artifacts like this cannon:

Other artifacts abounded throughout the Walled City, but what really was stunning was the architecture and foliage:

Behind this particular building is a garden with statues of varying sizes of each Chinese zodiac animal.  I tried to capture images of each, but made sure to capture my own zodiac animal, the ox, up close:

Among the many pavilions in the Walled City was one in which the floored panels were composed as giant Chinese chessboards:

And on the walls surrounding gardens like these were fantastically beautiful flowers:

While Carrie and I were busy admiring the south gate of the Walled City, we were approached by a pair of very earnest secondary school students who asked us in English if they could interview us for a school project they were doing (was it really that obvious that we were tourists?  Yes, yes it was.).

Now, I don't know if you know this, but flying halfway around the world somehow manages to throw your body's internal clock completely out the 100th-story window so that you barely know up from down and right from left, much less day from night.  I know, shocker, right?  I think I'll call this phenomenon I have discovered here "jet lag."

The pair of students erstwhile were asking us serious and meaningful questions about whether our interests in Hong Kong and in the Walled City were historical, cultural, or more, and of how much of the Walled City's story we were familiar with, and all I could do was grunt and point to my dear wife who gamely tried to answer their questions far more articulately than I could have, but that still came out the way most politicians answer questions: using lots of words to say really very little.  Because at least in our case, very little was all we could come up with.

So, somewhere in Hong Kong, there exists somewhat embarrassing video footage of the two of us in which I sound, look, and probably smell (hey, it was a 14-hour flight with no showers) like a caveman.  I clearly need to find these students, bribe them for the footage, and destroy it before my nonexistent enemies can use it to blackmail me somehow.

From the Walled City, we eventually made our way to the Wong Tai Sin temple, where our jet lag was instantly compounded with the fierce and pungent perfume of roughly twenty quadrillion sticks of incense, all carried by devout pilgrims to the temple plaza as a part of their ministrations for their respective spiritualities.  I don't say this to denigrate the use of incense as a religious practice--after all, a great many of us Christians belong firmly in the "smells and bells" camp as well.  But holy cow, there needs to be a maximum occupancy on incense sticks just like there is with people.

Nevertheless, it always amazes me regardless to see so many people, all at once, acting our their faith in prayer in so devoted a manner.  Every time I worry--and this worry will at times seem to be popping up with increasing frequency--that we as a world and as a people are losing faith in those things greater than ourselves (especially that thing I call God), I get the immense privilege to bear witness to our capacity to have faith anew, and for the first (and not even remotely last) time on this trip, I found my own spirituality encouraged by the surroundings in which I had placed myself.

Between the incense, jet lag, and general fatigue, I didn't have the energy to snap as many pictures here as I did at the Walled City.  I did, however, come across this really cool fountain in front of one of the shrines, proof that even my beloved hometown of Kansas City doesn't have a complete monopoly on being the City of Fountains:

With our visit to both sites finished (we actually tried to visit a third--the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral--but it was closed when we arrived), we beat a path back to the Kowloon train station and then back to the Hong Kong airport.  Along the way, we also stumbled completely accidentally onto an upstairs restaurant in which we had some of the best dim sum of our still budding lives, but that is the subject of another post--of my next post,in fact, entitled "What We Ate (Or, An Ode to Lamb Burgers)."

I am in fact completing this post from the Hong Kong airport, but on our return leg back to San Francisco, ten days after our visit into Kowloon.  While altogether brief and obscured by the fog of physical limitations as well as the requisite atmospheric smog in China, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which would prove to be the first of many on this trip.  I am, and will continue to be, immensely and profoundly grateful for that reality.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, November 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Upon Sand, Upon Rock"

(Note: Carrie and I will be jetting out of the country for two weeks to New Zealand for our long-belated honeymoon as well as for a much-needed vacation for the both of us.  I am purposely trying to unplug as much as possible during these two weeks, and so aside from perhaps posting some pictures, there will be radio silence here on the blog as well.  I plan on being back in action both in my congregation and here online starting the week of Monday the 17th.  As always, it is a joy to be able to write for you, and I look forward to getting back into both ministry and writing rested and renewed.  ~E.A.)

Luke 6:46-49

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say? 47 I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. 48 It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. 49 But those who don’t put into practice what they hear are like a person who built a house without a foundation. The floodwater smashed against it and it collapsed instantly. It was completely destroyed.” (Common English Bible)

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

The scientist could have been summoned straight out of central casting: lanky, somewhat balding, thick-framed glasses, and a studious face that often appeared above a suit and tie, but his work was anything but stereotypical.  Almost singlehandedly, Jonas Salk changed the world by doing something that nobody else had managed to do in a cultural atmosphere of sheer panic: come up with a foolproof inoculation against the cause of that panic…polio.

It’s an instructive lesson for the present moment as well, considering how ape we have all collectively gone over ebola, because then with polio as now with ebola, public reaction was one of unadulterated fright when an epidemic of polio hit the United States in 1952.  But a bare three years later, in 1955, morale immediately reversed when the news of Salk’s polio vaccine proving successful hit the news wires.  And now, nearly 60 years after that first successful test, people are talking about a legitimate chance for humanity to one day eradicate polio the same way we did in the 1970s with the smallpox of old.

And while Salk’s success in the molten pressure of the crucible is preaching-worthy in and of itself, it is what he did after the vaccine’s success that makes him such a good springboard for today’s message.  Or, rather, it is what he didn’t do.  He refused to patent the vaccine, meaning that any pharmaceutical company could manufacture and distribute it.  And that is why I said he almost singlehandedly changed the world: with a patent, the polio vaccine would have taken much longer to eradicate the disease in entire swaths of the globe.

So when he was asked who in fact held the patent on the polio vaccine, Salk simply and famously replied, “There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?”  In other words, could you patent something that was almost universally good for humanity?  Salk couldn’t.  And that choice he made allowed humanity to build its defense against a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease upon a foundation of rock.  Salk could have been one of the biggest, richest grains of sand in the world, but he preferred to bequeath to that world a rock instead.  And so, in essence, a house of care and cure was built upon a rock.  And that kind of strength, rare though it might be, is what we look at today.

So I said at the beginning of this series that this was a new sermon series for the fall, and this series would take us all the way into November…well, here we are in November, and holy freaking cow.  I can’t believe it, can you?  Anyways, we have been 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, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with subsequent instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us, not judging other people, and refraining from hypocrisy.  Last week, we arrived at what all of these different instructions are meant to make us: the pure tree, the pure heart, which bears only pure fruit, and today, the passage is a similarly summative sort of declaration by Jesus—that this is what people who live out His teachings look like—but with a far different metaphor.  Instead of trees and fruit, we have houses upon sand and upon rock, and one of them blows away.  All we need is the big bad wolf and the three little pigs and this would be a story I was read at bedtime every night.

(And no, for the record, that was emphatically not me saying that Jesus plagiarized from the fairy tales.  Jesus plagiarizes from the sing-a-longs, y’all.  Okay, I digress.)

But before we even get to the house-on-sand, house-on-rock metaphor, we have to deal with one of the most universal indictments Jesus offers against those who would do wrong—universal because it doesn’t begin with, say, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.”  No, this “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I say?” bit is Jesus scolding His own followers.

And that’s a bit tougher for us to contemplate, isn’t it?  It’s easier to accept Jesus’ roughness with His criticism when said criticisms are leveled at anyone but us: scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, hipsters, mimes, Canadians…but it’s tougher when it’s aimed at us.  We may want Jesus to be all-loving and all-able-to-let-things-slide, but that is what WE want, not what God wants and certainly not at all who Jesus was.  The point of Jesus here was that there were things that He cannot let slide.

We Christians, though, have made a time-honored tradition out of calling Jesus Lord and then not doing a lick of what He actually says to do—everything that He has spent these past five weeks telling us to do in Luke 6.  And so we should not be so surprised when it feels like (not ‘if’, this is definitely a ‘when’) we live in that house made upon sand rather than the house made upon rock.

Now, the church itself, well, it has stood the test of nearly 2,000 years of time and it will certainly exist in some form or fashion for many more years to come, but our own individual churches, and even our own individual households, often feel like they are made upon sand and could blow away at a moment’s notice from a stiff wind.

In some ways, it makes the tornado we experienced here the other week rather prescient: it touched down right by our church building, and our facilities survived with no damage whatsoever.  Our church building has been a rock.  And we are, in part, built upon it and within it.

But we are also a congregation that is built upon sand, because even if a physical tornado might not destroy our building, a financial tornado very well could.  A moral or spiritual tornado is always a risk even for the biggest churches: just this week, the 15-site megachurch Mars Hill announced it would be disbanding effective January 1, 2015, after repeated scandals that plagued its lead pastor Mark Driscoll.

So the threat of seeing one’s own spiritual home being blown away is always very much real, even as Christianity itself as a spiritual home tends to continue plodding onward.

But I want to talk about your own homes as well—not just your church home, but your own household, where you live and eat and sleep.  We don’t need a show of hands here, but how many of you are worried about being the person whose house is about to be blown away by some sort of disaster?  How many of you are worried about not having the safety net of being built upon rock?

That fright is probably there to some degree for all of us who do not have the safety net of wealth, and it is in part because all of us do not do as Jesus would command.  God made the earth to be plenty for all of us, but when the wealthiest 1% of Americans control about one-third of our nation’s wealth, it isn’t difficult to read between the lines that many are going without whilst others have more than they know what to do with.

And that’s not me talking about the dreaded ‘s’ word, either—socialism.  I’m simply stating a factual reality.  Imagine how rich Jonas Salk could have gotten if he had patented his polio vaccine.  He chose not to do that and gave us a rock rather than making himself the richest grain of sand in the billions of grains of sand that live in the world.

We create houses built upon sand through our selfishness and greed—we create these sorts of fragile, dangerously weak houses that others have to live in.  But we also do it to ourselves as well: we all could, say, manage our money better.  We could all be more diligent at building our own personal safety nets.  But so many of us want things, and when we pay full price for them, that comes at the additional cost of not being able to solidify ourselves and our homes and our churches.

But this isn’t a sermon about frugality, it’s about spirituality.  It’s about being able to temper our own self-centeredness enough to see past ourselves and into the needs of the other person who, just like us, is living in a fragile, wispy house upon sand with no real foundation to speak of.  It’s about us being able to help build up a foundation for that other person, and about us being able to allow other people in to our lives so that they in turn can help build for us a rock to live upon.

So who in your life most needs a rock to build upon?  Who could most benefit from you inserting yourself into the picture and offering your own strength and solidity, even if you’re terrified that you don’t even have enough of it for yourself right now, let along somebody else?  Are you willing to take that sort of risk to put yourself out there for another person living right next door to you in a neighborhood full of sand-based homes?  Are you worried if you are even able to?

The whole thing about this entire sermon Jesus gives—and this entire series that I have given based on it—is that we shouldn’t be worried to.  We should be worried not to.  Because if we do indeed call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord,” then we are called and compelled to act upon that belief in Christ and that faith which we hold in our hearts for Him. 

We are called and compelled to be, as Saint Teresa of Avila famously said, the feet of the body of Christ that has no literal feet, the voice that Christ uses to teach, and the hands that He uses to bless. 

We are to be the architects of neighborhoods and towns and entire cities of homes that will be built upon the steadfast rock of Christ’s incredible, life-changing- world-upside-down-turning love.

We are to be the laborers of love, tirelessly striving under heat and rain and light and dark to create for one another what God began: a life that no longer knows need, and which only knows grace.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 2, 2014