Thursday, October 29, 2015

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

November 2015: "Bite-Sized Pancakes"

Dear Church,

While in seminary, it became a regular ritual for me to throw on a sweatshirt and flip flops before heading over to the seminary dining hall for breakfast, because the chef at the time, Don, would cook pancakes, hash browns, and omelets to order. He had a funny sense of humor and would alter our portion size to good-naturedly goof around, and to that end, whenever I got pancakes from him, they'd come in all shapes and sizes. One day I might get a plate covered in tiny, sand dollar-sized pancakes, and the next week I might get just one pancake, but it'd be as big as my face. And the following week, I'd receive a pancake of every size within that wide spectrum.

All of this was a source of constant amusement for not only myself but the other students who Don would mess with on a regular basis. I rarely eat pancakes anymore, owing to what may be the world's first-ever maple syrup addiction as well as the generally deletrious effect that large amounts of refined carbohydrates tend to have on one's waistline.

But with Thanksgiving upon us this month, I took the time to not only remember the delight the world's tiniest pancakes gave me when I first saw (and subsequently ate) them, but I saw them as something meaningful--something that represented the smaller things that we take for granted but that absolutely stick out in the mind once we think about them.

We absolutely should be grateful for those things, those bite-sized pancakes in our lives, because in the absence of the massive, life-changing world-upside-down-turning events that may not come across our tables every single year--events like births, deaths, weddings, and the like--it is often the accumulation of the little things that takes on the weight of something much bigger and much greater.
Which is why even the bite-sized pancakes gave me the opportunity in seminary to develop my vision to see God in all of my singular, standalone experiences. They helped me to intertwine those experiences into a story, a testimony, of my life and faith in God. They helped me begin to develop a perspective towards those small, seemingly mundane passing moments that sustains my own ministry today. And they tasted pretty darn good to boot.

So if you were to ask me on Thanksgiving what it is that I am thankful for this year, I would tell's the bite sized pancakes. May you too find the time to give thanks for those bite-sized pancakes in your own life, whatever they may be, this month, and in all months...for Thanksgiving is not simply a day, or a month, it is a way of being and a way of life, a way shown to us by the One to whom we give our eternal thanks and gratitude.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

New Sermon Series: "With Sighs Too Deep For Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8"

How did we already reach the point in the year where I'm previewing the Advent sermon series here?! I know, I know...Advent, aka "the Christmas season" is almost upon us, which means you'll certainly be hearing it--at least from me, but probably from other folks as well--about where 2015 went. But we're not quite to the Advent season yet, and we will have four additional Sundays immersed in the new sermon series we just began last Sunday that takes us verse-by-verse through the lofty, soaring prose of Paul's eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans. There is some genuinely powerful, profound stuff in Paul's writings about the Holy Spirit, which is what he predominantly devotes this chapter to, and I will continue to delight in unpacking that chapter of Scripture with all of you. 

I'll see you Sunday,
Pastor Eric

"With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8" 

October 25: "Ancient Dwellers of Human Hearts," Romans 8:1-11
November 1: “Bendlerblock,” Romans 8:12-17
November 8: “Winton’s Children,” Romans 8:18-27
November 15: “Castellio’s Lament,” Romans 8:28-34
November 22: “The Challenger Deep,” Romans 8:35-39

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Are Top Ten Lists Overdone Yet?

...because I sure hope not! (although, sorry, David Letterman, because they probably are.)

Why do I hope the ubiquitous Top Ten list hasn't quite jumped the Fonzie-hurdled shark yet?  (If you don't get the reference, click here.)

Because the Longview, Washington (the town my parish is in) City Council, in one meeting, both approved a six-month moratorium on applications for new homeless shelters (of which there were none pending to begin with) and voted to spend $180,000 on new facilities to house the golf carts at the Mint Valley golf course.

You read that right: a ban on housing homeless people, hundreds of thousands of dollars for housing golf carts.

If there is a more painfully accurate encapsulation of the priorities of 21st century America, I have yet to find it.  How fortunate of me, I suppose, to have it crash-land itself in my own proverbial backyard instead.

While I've written a letter to the editor of the local paper strongly criticizing this pair of decisions by the council, I'm still full of plenty of piss n' vinegar (surprise, surprise), so I figured I would take another delightfully iconic bit of Americana--the Top 10 list--and use it to get out all my feels over this bankrupt morality.

So, I give to you...The Top Ten Things My City Council Would Rather Pay To House Than Actual, Living, Breathing People.  Buckle up, ladies and germs, this gets nonsensical in a big darn hurry.

10. Golf carts, obv

Please don't drive with your hands folded behind your head.  Image courtesy of Flickr

9. Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubemen

They all look so happy now that they have a home...see those smiles?  Image courtesy of wikia

8. Honey Badgers

Image courtesy of (yes, such a site apparently exists.  Because of course it does.)

7. ET (who was just a puppet anyways, so get over it)

ET phone golf cart home...image courtesy of

6. The printer that got the crap kicked out of it in Office Space

Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.  It'd feel better with a golf cart.  Image courtesy of

5. Unicorns

Though I must admit, if they do truly poop ice cream, I'd house 'em too.  Image courtesy of

4. Whatever the hell that villainous cloud-thing was in that godawful Green Lantern movie

In brightest day, in blackest night, our homeless must continue their plight.  Image courtesy of wikia

3. Grumpy Cat

He won't be grateful, but lets be honest--would any cat be?  Image courtesy of

3. The Teletubbies

Except for Dipsy.  That dillweed can sleep outside with everyone else.  Long live Tinky Winky.  Image courtesy of

2. Left Shark

Because an awkwardly dancing Great White shark deserves to live forever.  Image courtesy of

And the number one thing that my city council would rather house than actual people is...

Image courtesy of wikia

Jar Jar Binks.  Because the Longview City Council would rather house the most annoying, arguably racist, Star Wars character who did more than even the invention of midichlorians to ruin The Phantom Menace...than people.

Did making this top 10 list work for me?  Nope, I'm still upset.

Oh well.

It was worth a try.

I hope you enjoyed the ravings of a lunatic pastor and I pray that they may have sparked within you a greater sympathy for our shelterless brothers and sisters in Christ.  For as Proverbs 19 states, whosoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, October 25, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Ancient Dwellers of Human Hearts"

Romans 8:1-11

So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. 5 People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God. 9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. 10 If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. 11 If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week One

The 38th Parallel goes by many names today.  The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.  Panmunjom, the town on the parallel.  A Cold War relic.  And ultimately, the border between North and South Korea, a border drawn out of the same American-versus-Soviet brinksmanship that gave rise to the proxy wars of capitalism against communism throughout the world in the latter half of the 20th century, from Vietnam to Central America to the Korean peninsula.

When the sun fell on the 38th parallel and the border was closed for good as a result of the Korean War in the early 1950s, the stories of families being rendered apart as a result are absolutely wrenching.  Suki Kim, a writer who taught English in North Korea, recounts in her memoir Without You There Is No Us her own family’s harrowing experience of trying to escape to South Korea on June 25, 1950 when the border closes:

The goal is to get the hell out…if only the truck would move…

Shouts are coming from somewhere.  Somebody, some panicked mother or father, a desperate voice pleading with young men to give up their spaces to women and children.  Before the shouts register, before my grandmother has a moment to ponder the words or protest, (her) seventeen-year-old (son) rises.  “I’ll go,” he says, then reassures her: “I’ll find another ride, Mother.  Don’t worry.”  Then, just as quickly, he is out of sight, followed by the sound of the engine.  It all happens in a blink, and my grandmother, bewildered by this unexpected twist, turns frantically in the direction of where her son has gone, and the truck is moving suddenly, too fast for her to think clearly…this is war, and a split-second decision is costly.  There she is, my grandmother, dumbstruck on a speeding truck, without her oldest child…

Seoul was captured three days later…

My mother’s family stops in Suwon to wait for my uncle, but he never arrives.  Some days later, they run into neighbors who report seeing him dragged away by North Korean soldiers…the road back to Seoul is blocked now, and my grandmother waits in vain.

The line demarcating North and South Korea remains today as impregnable and lethal as it ever was.  But, on occasion, there is still hope.  This past week, four hundred South Koreans, chosen by lot, crossed the DMZ to reunite for a fleeting 72 hours with their relatives in the North for the first time in a year-and-a-half after the North finally agreed to another reunion.

And in 1983, thirty years after the war ended, the national broadcast station in South Korea aired an hour-and-a-half long segment designed and intended to reunite families who had been separated by the war, as sort of a face-on-the-milk carton campaign, but on television.  Originally only scheduled for those 95 minutes, it ended up instead airing continuously for 138 days.  Some 10,000 families were reunited as a result, three decades after stories like Suki Kim’s.

10,000 families.  We’re talking a population in the neighborhood of Kelso and Longview combined of people once separated, now reunited.  Once apart, but now reconciled.

Such is the way of goodness when we allow it to reign in our lives.  And it is that way because so too is such the way of the Holy Spirit when we allow it to reign in our lives, as Paul exhorts us to in Romans 8 as he swings us on the pendulum between being ruled by sin and being ruled by the Spirit.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning with its first eleven verses, which may sound circuitous at first, but try imagining it as a pro/con list where on the pro side you have the work of the spirit, and on the other side you have the work of the sin, and it becomes much easier to grasp, I think.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a bit of a unique beast.  Firstly, it’s the longest letter of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament, and secondly, it reads almost more as a theological treatise rather than a pastoral response to the concerns and obstacles that the church was facing—read through any of Paul’s other letters, especially the letters to Corinth or Galatia, and you’ll see the stark difference in subject matter and tone almost immediately.

Perhaps more than anything else, Paul—not just in Romans, but in all of his letters—is insistent on avoiding division and strife within the church, and to instead approach it with an eye towards unity and reconciliation, for we are led by the same Holy Spirit after all (except for when he sarcastically tells the opponents of the Galatians on the matter of circumcision to go castrate themselves, but that’s another kettle of fish).

The eighth chapter of Romans is a core part of this theological treatise because Paul really begins to explain how the Holy Spirit is meant to work in us.  The end product of the Spirit’s work, of course, is that famous passage from the aforementioned crankypants letter to the Galatians, contrasting the sinful fruits of the world with the virtuous fruits of the spirit.  But how we even get to these virtuous fruits, well, that is what Paul is trying to answer here, by basically saying that selfishness, that age-old characteristic that is laying deep within each of us, that selfishness that dwells within us is what has dominated us for so long.  It had dwelled in our hearts for so long, all the way back to the most ancient of times, to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, that its hold on us was impossible to uproot.

But then Jesus arrived.  And the possibility of all that changing arrived with Him, ironically because the world largely refused to reconcile itself to Him.  Jesus wasn’t welcomed in with open doors, arms, hearts, or minds, He was welcomed with insults and threats from the powers that be that were all eventually made very, very real.

And those threats and insults came from a place of selfishness, from powerful people who wanted to hang on to their power and position, from wealthy people who wanted to hang on to their wealth and status, and from prejudiced, narrow-minded folk who just could not bring themselves to believe that the Messiah, the son of the living God, could ever have crawled out of a backwater, Podunk hole like Nazareth in the boondocky backwoods of Galilee.

Jesus’s resurrection, then, is not *only* a triumph of life over the grave and love over hate, it is also a triumph of selflessness over selfishness.  The ancient dweller of our hearts, as ancient as the words the serpent spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden, that selfishness had finally seen its winning streak come to an end.

The problem, then, is not that our selfishness is invincible or unbeatable, because we know that it can be beaten.  The problem is that it so often truly is, and that it rarely really has been ever since that first Easter when the stone was rolled away and the tomb was discovered empty.  Over the course of the subsequent 2,000 years from that day to this, selfishness has another pretty epic win-loss record.  It has picked up some pretty substantial, shameful victories from massive, worldwide sins like the crusades and the transatlantic slave trade to even the tiny stuff between two people that nobody else sees, but that one person can end up crushed by another for.

And there’s no excuse for that.  There really isn’t.  We’ve had 2,000 years to get our houses in order; that we have not is emphatically on us.  Which means it is way, way past time for more caring and less fighting.  More praying and less bickering.  More loving and less hating.

It is time for all of that because it has always been time for all of that.  When Adam and Eve took from the tree, they gained the knowledge of good versus evil, they were able to tell the difference between right and wrong.  We are, in that singular sense, their heirs, for we know the difference and then refuse to act on our knowledge of that difference.

If we are genuine Christians, then, if we truly do follow Christ not only to the cross but to the empty tomb that follows, then our refusals and protestations must end here.  No more exclaiming that it is too hard, too difficult, too impossible for us to comprehend, much less live out.

We know what we must do, because Jesus Himself told us: love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

On these, He says, hangs the entirety of the Law and the Prophets.

And Paul follows this up by saying, in its purest essence, may the God who gave you the Son to tell you these things also give you the Holy Spirit by which you shall have the strength to do these things, strength enough to let selflessness rule so that you may indeed be reconciled to one another, for if reconciliation can happen across the most heavily-guarded border in the world, with sixty-some years of complete separation layered on top, then reconciliation is indeed possible anywhere.

And may the same Spirit that gave Paul so much strength to do the great and story-changing things that he did indeed give you that same strength as well.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

October 25, 2015

Original image courtesy of

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kelly, Still On My Mind

Dear Kelly,

I know you were penpals with a number of people during your incarceration, including Jurgen Moltmann, so perhaps you can still answer another letter, albeit an open one, since you no longer possess any earthly address.

It has been nearly three weeks now since you were executed, brought out of this life while singing Amazing Grace, and I still find myself trembling and my voice quaking when mentioning you.  I find others bordering on tears when reflecting on your story.  And I find a nation, a world, we live in, still struggling with its own barbarism, its own brutality, in such a manner that we ourselves still struggle for the redemption that you sought and, ultimately, I pray, have now found.

That word--redemption--and words like it, words like "rehabilitation" or "restoration" mean little to us in truth.  We say that they do, that the aim of our penal system is to rehabilitate, redeem, and restore broken people to some measure of wholeness, but we still materially profit off of their imprisonment and enslavement.  We still believe in punishment, and perhaps rightly so, but our zeal for it has clouded our ability to see the fruits of what the Spirit can sometimes wrought in a wretch's life.

I have to think that is why you went out of this world singing Amazing Grace, because it was indeed God's grace, freely offered from the divine to each of us, including you.  And in truth, that grace offends us deeply.  If it didn't, you would likely still be very much among the living, because we could actually accept the possibility that God's grace had reached you in a particular and eternal way and redeemed you forever for the better.

Instead, you have joined your victim among the dead and I am left facing the angel at the empty tomb of Christ, who implores to me why I look for the living among the dead.  I so dare to look for the living among the dead because of you, Kelly.  Because you, now dead, had found new life.

You aren't alone in this.  We say that we love a born-again story, a tale of a sinner so great and so in need of God who then recognizes their own frailties and failures and surrenders them over to God.  But then we kill that sinner.  We did not want to think that you could have possibly received such a divine pardon and lived out a new life in Christ accordingly.  Because of that, we killed you.

I'm using "we" a lot here, even though it is just me writing to you, because just as you were demanded to take moral responsibility for the life you took, I have come to believe that we as Americans and as citizens have to take the moral responsibility for the lives we take.  I am responsible for your death, Kelly, even as I publicly campaign against capital punishment, and I am so very, very sorry that you had to die.

You may be gone from this world, but you are hardly forgotten in it.  Your name comes up in conversation and I think not just about you but about the other souls we have deprived ourselves of long after their "rehabilitation," people like Stanley Tookie Williams and Karla Faye Tucker.  Your name has joined theirs in a long testimony to the heartlessness of God's allegedly favored nation.

If that piece of information serves as cold comfort to you, know that it does for me as well.  Insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result; we put to death killers who have visibly and demonstrably repented, and the result really is, and ought to be, as we expect.  We are no closer to putting down the sword.  We are no closer to turning the other cheek, to praying for our enemies, or to blessing the person killed alongside us, telling them that they will be with us in Paradise.

That's probably the biggest thing I don't get about that whole heart-rendering phenomenon, though, from Karla Faye to you: we are so quick and eager to read that story of the repentant criminal from Luke's account of the Crucifixion, but the minute weare  presented with a similarly repentant criminal, we do not bless them as Jesus did, we have her killed.

On other days, this might be cause for unbelief in me.  Not in God, for my belief and faith in the God who guided and made us both remains intact.  But not in humanity either, because in truth, my belief in humanity had already begun to erode a long time ago.  It gets revitalized at times, to be sure--a particularly profound story of goodness like yours did in fact achieve that in me once upon a time, but your story's ending was deleterious to say the least on that effect.  No, in full honesty, my unbelief in humanity's systems for hurt and pain is what reigns in my heart of hearts.

I need help in my unbelief.  I need help because I still long to believe.  In a way, I feel like I have to believe, that without this belief in my fellow God-children, this life would lose so much of the meaning that I--and billions of other believers--hold to be innately sacred.

Placed face-to-face with the sacredness of Jesus in Mark 9, a desperate father of a stricken boy cried out to Him, "Help me in my unbelief!"  It is a cry that I too have found myself uttering, not only to God or to God revealed through Jesus Christ, but to other people who are connected to that God, to people like you.

Help me in my unbelief, Kelly.  For you are still, and likely will forever be, on my mind.

Your brother in Christ,

Kelly Gissendaner was a woman on death row in the state of Georgia for conspiring with her lover to murder her husband.  While incarcerated, she had a profound experience that resulted in her conversion to Christianity and her ministry to both inmates and released inmates, especially a group that came to call themselves the Struggle Sisters, of whom my friend the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is pastor.  Many of the Sisters spoke of how Kelly literally saved their lives by talking them out of suicide attempts and recidivism.  How having a penal system so heartless and soulless that it puts to death one who has herself saved lives and souls after having her own soul saved benefits them, or you, or me, is impossible to understand.

Longview, Washington
October 20, 2015

Image courtesy of Twitter

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Let's Stop Apologizing for the Rich Man

My apologies for the lack of posting this week--I was attending (and presenting twice at) the Turner Lecture series that my region puts on every year in Yakima, Washington.  I had thought at the time I might still have the time to be able to write here as I usually do, and I was mistaken.  I did not preach on Sunday because this week I am in the Seattle area for another round of doctoral classes, so there was no sermon for me to post this Sunday.  I am back writing for you, though, and I'll leave this here as I head off for class for the day... ~E.A.

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?” 18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”  20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Mark 10:17-22 (CEB)

Sitting some distance down the road from my apartment there is a very large Roman Catholic parish, with a unique blend of modern and classic architecture that reflects the blend of contemporary and traditional elements of its liturgy.  Despite the size of the sanctuary, it can be standing room only if you arrive late, so packed the pews are on Sundays.

I attended Mass there this past Sunday en route to my time this week in another session of intensive classes for my coursework at a Roman Catholic (Jesuit) seminary.  The priest's homily was on the story above from Mark 10, as part of the lectionary (assigned set of readings for a week) that this year, is going through the Gospel of Mark.

The sermon was great in many respects--the priest acknowledged the radicalness of what Jesus was really saying, that what was being said here is meant to discomfort us and that it should discomfort us, even if we do not think of ourselves as wealthy by American standards, because by global standards, most of us absolutely are materially rich.

But then something else stuck with me--the repeated reference in his message to this man as "sincere."

Except that sincerity is never actually mentioned in the story.  Re-read it again.  The man is not referred to as sincere, or eager, or earnest.  The closest we get to his sincerity is that he knelt before Jesus and referred to Him as good, something that Jesus rebukes him for.

But the Pharisees, scribes, and temple leaders who opposed Jesus also referred to Him as "Teacher" (Mark 12:14, 19).  And one legal expert who did not oppose Jesus similarly referred to Him as "Teacher" (Mark 12:32).  Put simply, both opponents and allies of Jesus refer to Him as "Teacher."

Yes, there is the addition of kneeling.  And that gesture of genuflection may well have been genuine.  But when Jesus is identified by his betrayer with a kiss, can we at least acknowledge that a gesture is not necessarily genuine on spec?

I'm not saying the rich man who came to Jesus here in Mark 10 must have been in the same league as the Pharisees and scribes and temple leaders who opposed Jesus in Jerusalem, I'm just saying there may not be enough evidence to conclusively say he was genuine in his inquiry here either.

But our default is to think that he was.  We want him to be, we need him to be, because in our 21st century capitalist, plutocratic way thinking, this man could not possibly be jaded or less virtuous simply because he was rich, despite what Jesus proceeds to say immediately after the man leaves Him: “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

None of that jibes with our celebration of prosperity and adherence to prosperity theology--the belief that God wants us to be wealthy.  According to fellow (but much more prominent) Disciple blogger Christian Piatt, of the 250 largest churches in the United States, 60-some are explicitly proponents of prosperity theology, flying right in the face of stories like these.

But even outside the realm of prosperity theology, we try to negate the true import and impact of this story.  I hear Christians all the time minimize Jesus's command to the young man to sell all he owned and give the proceeds to the poor by saying, "That was a private command, to one person, which means we don't have to follow it."  Despite what Jesus says immediately afterwards.  And despite the reality of minimizing the scope and scale of a teaching by someone we purport to be our Lord, Savior, and Messiah.

If Jesus truly is all of those things to us, I don't see how we can possibly minimize His words, much as we may want to.  That desire to do so is a temptation, just like the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness at the hands of Satan, and we are called to resist this temptation just as Jesus resisted His temptation, for Satan tempted Jesus by misinterpreting Scripture to Him.

As difficult as it is to hear, when we misinterpret Scripture, we are doing as the devil did to Jesus.  Which means we absolutely cannot minimize what is happening here by trying to take the side of the rich man by portraying him in such a sympathetic light in the face of this unyielding, rigid teacher of a Messiah.  We cannot afford to try to add virtue to this man with no grounds for doing so, because this man, with all his wealth and splendor, could not afford to add virtue to himself either.  We do not get to do that job for him, or is it our business to even try to do so.

None of this should be taken as a vehement criticism of a colleague in particular--as I said, I appreciated almost all of the rest of his sermon.  I'm not trying to call him out, I'm trying to call out this tendency that so many of us are wont to follow: the tendency to add virtue to someone by dint of them being wealthy.

That is a privilege, that is privilege, and is not one that the rich man demonstrated he deserved.  His insincerity, no matter his gestures and references to Jesus as "Teacher," was demonstrated in full by his unwillingness to part with his possessions, his unwillingness to follow Jesus, and his sadness at learning that the kingdom of Heaven cannot in fact be bought and paid for.

The priest made one other point that I resonated with--that we are all the rich man, by way of our own wealth relative to the rest of the world.  He was exactly right in saying that.

We ought to be saddened that the kingdom of God is made much more difficult for us to reach because of our own material richness.

But unlike the rich man, we ought not, cannot, and should not ever walk away as a result of having heard what he--and we--have just heard.

I know that our sincerity is deeper than that.  I know it.  And I have faith that it will lead us even further, in new and amazing ways, to the One who is God of you and me alike.

Federal Way, Washington
October 13, 2015

Sunday, October 4, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Jesus: 40 Days"

Luke 4:1-15

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” 12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God." 

13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. 14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. 15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week Six

The collection of photographs, many of them twenty or even thirty-some years old now, spread out in front of her.  There are newspaper clippings, too.  Letters, correspondence, all sorts of memories represented across the surface of the simplest and humblest of furniture: a kitchen table.

And she began to recount to the journalist all of these different stories of the people she met and cared for and who were eventually buried right there in that little town of Arkansas.  Only she wasn’t a medical professional of any kind, just a woman with a huge soul.  Ruth Coker Burks began caring for HIV/AIDS patients in her town beginning all the way back in 1984, when the gay men who carried HIV/AIDS lived and died under a tremendous stigma because of that diagnosis.  And she recounted to the Arkansas Times her memory of beginning this work, with one young man whose mother would never visit him, not once:

Her son was a sinner, the (mother) told Burks.  She didn’t know what was wrong with him and didn’t care.  She wouldn’t come, as he was already dead to her as far as she was concerned.  She said she wouldn’t even claim his body when he died.

It was a hymn Burks would hear again and again over the next decade: sure judgment and yawning hellfire, abandonment on a platter of scripture.  Burks estimates she worked with more than a thousand people dying of AIDS over the course of the years.  Of those, she said, only a handful of families didn’t turn their backs on their loved ones.  Whether that was because of religious conviction or fear of the virus, Burks still doesn’t know…

“(So) I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath on earth,” she said.  She hasn’t talked much about that day until recently.  People always ask her why she wasn’t afraid.  “I have no idea,” she said.  “The thought of being afraid never occurred to me until after I was already deep into the AIDS crisis.  I just asked God, “If this is what you want me to do, just please don’t let me or my daughter get it.”  And He didn’t.”

Abandonment on a platter of scripture.  And yet, a dying person—hundreds of them, over the years—ends up being ministered to by an angel.  It is, in so very many profound ways, a striking and vivid example of the life we still lead as Jesus did in the wilderness—alone, vulnerable, and weak… waiting, in the face of the devil, for God to arrive to us in the form of divine angels.

This is a no-longer-new sermon series, now that we are six weeks in, and in fact, this will be it—the final week of the series.  Which I suppose is poetically appropriate, as this series has really been about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Five weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we then moved on to Ezekiel in week two before rewinding back to Exodus to discuss Moses in week three.  In week four, we fast forwarded instead of rewinding further, this time all the way into the New Testament with this story about a hitherto unknown paralyzed man named Aeneas, and last week, in week five, we heard from Luke about the 84-year-old prophetess Anna at the dedication of Jesus at the Jerusalem temple.

Now, on week six, the final week of this series, we finally arrive at the story of Jesus Himself, and of the 40 days He spent awaiting God, alone and at risk, deep in the wilderness of Israel.  This is the text that we read every winter for Ash Wednesday, the first day of the church season of Lent, because Lent is meant to be a season of penitence and resistance to temptation—the latter of which Jesus displays at great length in the wilderness.

But that’s for Ash Wednesday.  Today, I want to talk with you about the nature of Jesus’s waiting for not only the arrival of Satan, but the arrival of God’s angels.  It is a waiting that is entirely solitary in nature—or, it would be but for the presence of Satan, compared to which solitude would be downright enviable.

And Satan acts in much the same manner as the parents of these poor persons dying of AIDS back in the 1980s—He ultimately abandons Jesus, presumably leaving Him for dead, but not before tempting Him by distorting different passages of Scripture in an attempt to get Jesus to bend to evil’s will.  That’s what the whole back-and-forth between Jesus and Satan is about: they’re quoting Scripture at each other, Satan included.

The devil knows and can use the Bible.  Perhaps that fact should not so shock and scare us, but it probably does, because we are raised to treat the Bible as *our* inoculation against evil, not the other way around.  And yet, here in this solitude, we hear the Bible quoted to Jesus in the worst way.

That too, is very reminiscent of HIV/AIDS patients—they often hear the Bible quoted at them in the worst ways, to argue that God is punishing them, that God hates them, that God wants them dead.  Think of the people in that era like Anita Bryant and people in our own era like Fred Phelps who have said such things, either explicitly or implicitly, and how many of us followed their leads to no small extent.  For that wasn’t misinterpretation of Scripture that came out of Satan’s mouth, it was (is) misinterpretation of Scripture that has come out of *our* mouths, from our lips and tongues.

And that affects the way another person waits for God’s arrival in their lives, it really does.  Instead of waiting for God with a sense of hope—as Jesus does, as Anna did, we can cause people to await God with a sense of dread, guilt, or even fear.  Put simply—this isn’t just a question of how long one waits for God and God’s word in their lives; it is also a question of what the waiting feels like.

So, what has your waiting on God’s word been like in your life?  What has it felt like, what have you experienced?  And, in turn, what have you caused others who were or are likewise waiting for God to feel or to experience?  How have you strengthened their time in the wilderness?  Or, how have you made it harder for them?

In truth, I suspect, it is always both.  Sometimes we are strengthening others in their journeys through the wilderness, other times we are weakening them.  But when we are faced with which way to choose—the way of strength or the way of weakening—I would be remiss if I did not remark on what has just happened south of us on I-5 at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Because in truth, what took place in Roseburg is what we have done to HIV/AIDS patients, what we have done to Syrian refugees, or to the victims of the genocides in Rwanda or Sudan over the past twenty-some years: we have in no small sense abandoned them after saying “We will pray for you,” or, “Never again,” and then it does happen again, despite our prayers, and we still do nothing to try to prevent such atrocities in the future.  We abandon them to the wilderness where they have been confronted by the devil, in human form, and await God’s angels to minister to them, but in sadness and in truth, that ministration does not occur in some of these cases until death.

So how much longer will we consign our fellow mortals to the wilderness, bereft and cast off of any pretense of care or protection from their neighbors who profess to care and love and pray for them?  How much longer will we make them wait?  How much longer until the next mass shooting act of terrorism?

How much longer, O Lord?  How much longer must we wait?  And how must we wait?  Must we wait in weakness and starvation, in exposure and vulnerability, or can we at long last empower and be empowered to await in strength?

The notion of this entire series is that we wait according to God’s timetable, not ours.  But God’s timetable does not negate human action.  Every single person we have talked about here, except maybe Aeneas (and even then, his healing had a profound effect on his entire town), pushed for God’s will and presence in their communities as a direct result of having heard the word of God.

Are we prepared to be as they were now, to the people of Roseburg, to the people of Newtown, to the people of Charleston?

Are we prepared to not just wait on God’s timetable, but to act to press forward on it as well?

My fervent hope and prayer is that we always shall.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 4, 2015