Monday, October 31, 2016

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

November 2016: "Voting Made Simple"

Dear Church,

We as a Disciples of Christ congregation are a fundamentally democratic organization--we either elect members of the Board of Directors to make decisions on our behalf or, in the case of annual budgets and pastoral hires, we vote on those decisions ourselves as a direct democracy. That spirit of democracy, I believe, comes in no small part from us being an American-founded denomination, where cyclical elections have always been the order of the day.

And while I ordinarily aim to keep my love of church and love of country as separate entities, I thought it prudent to use my column this month to outline how to register to vote and how to vote, just in case you need a primer or a resource. This election matters, your vote matters, and I would love to see our congregation get a 100% participation rate in the election amongst our members! 

(Obligatory disclaimer: this is not legal advice. The laws I interpret for a living are much older than Washington's voting laws!)

If you are not yet registered to vote, you may register to vote in-person by the close of business on Monday, October 31st, at the Cowlitz County Auditor's Office in Kelso. You will need to bring a valid Washington state driver's license or ID with you in order to register, and the clerk will walk you through a small amount of paperwork to register you to make sure you can vote on Election Day, which this year falls on Tuesday, November 8th.

If you are already registered to vote, you *should* have received a ballot in the mail at the address the county auditor's office has on file for you. Simply fill the ballot out according to its instructions, place it into the enclosed secrecy envelope, and then seal the entire thing in the enclosed reply envelope and sign and date the back of it. You can mail your ballot back to the county auditor's office with one first-class stamp, or you can drop off your ballot at one of the two drop boxes at the civic circle in the center of town at no charge anytime on or before November 8th.

If you are unable to, or uncomfortable with, voting by mail, you may vote in-person on Election Day at the voting center set up by the county auditor's office (since Oregon is an entirely vote-by-mail state, you Oregon folks can skip this paragraph!). You may contact the auditor's office at (360) 577-3005 to determine where you should go vote on Election Day should you choose to do so in person. If you do vote in person, bring a valid photo ID with you in case you are asked by an election worker for it. You are also entitled to vote so free of intimidation or coercion by volunteers, amateur "poll watchers," or other voters. If you experience any sort of coercion or intimidation while voting, you are strongly encouraged to contact the FBI's public integrity section at (202) 514-1412.

And that's it!

I realize much of this information may be old hat for you if you are used to voting in every election, but every once in a while, I have to deliver a message that may not be applicable to all of us in order to ensure that all of us are in fact on even footing. Your right to vote is a right that has been fought for, campaigned for, and protected for decades. I humbly encourage you to exercise it on (or before by mail) this Election Day, because while just one vote may feel like a grain of sand compared to the tens of millions that are cast, that vote represents your voice and your values, and how precious a thing that is in God's sight!

I will be saying a special prayer for all of us on Election Day, and I hope you will be doing so as well. It will be a day of big decisions, and a prayer for God's wisdom to guide us in those decisions would be most surely welcome. My prayers and blessings to you all in this season of not just elections, but thanksgiving and togetherness!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Sunday, October 30, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Rootless Generations"

Matthew 11:16-19

“To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

(Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Three

I remember my middle school years very clearly. Aside from the month or so that I had a “girlfriend” (that is to say, someone you held hands with between classes and had dates at your hallway locker), the only person with whom I regularly ate lunch while I was in junior high was an outgoing and enthusiastically genial classmate with learning deficiencies named Lance. He would show up with one of his Power Ranger action figures, put it on the table, and tell me all about it, about his day, anything—we’d just talk.

And that was how I spent two years’ worth of lunches. The only person who saw me was the person who, at the time, was simply labeled as “retarded.” But he was the one who showed the emotional intelligence to sit down, day after day, with a total introvert who was not infrequently bullied. Who was the smart one?

My experience of eating alone as a result of a Mean Girls-esque ostracism is by no means a unique one. Natalie Hampton, a teenager from California, is another kid who spent an entire school year eating alone, but decided to do something about it: she created a smartphone app called Sit With Us, which allows students to broadcast to others with the app if their table is open, allowing anyone wanting to not eat alone to have company that day for lunch.

It is an app that I could have sorely used when I was in middle school. If, you know, there were smartphones and apps back in those old days of yore. I’ll let the Huffington Post pick it up here:

She was inspired to create it after she ate alone her entire seventh grade year…the situation left Hampton feeling vulnerable and made her a target for bullying.

Hampton, now a junior, is attending a different school and is thriving socially. Yet, the memory of sitting alone and being bullied still haunts her, especially since she knows her experience isn’t an isolated one.

Hampton told Audie Cornish on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that the reason why she felt an app like this was necessary is because it prevents kids from being publicly rejected and being considered social outcasts by their peers.

“This way it’s very private. It’s through the phone. No one has to know,” she explained to Cornish. And you know that you’re not going to be rejected once you get to the table.”

When students—especially the “cool kids”—stand up to bullying, it has a significant impact, according to a study conducted by Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale University. During a 2012-2013 school year, over 50 New Jersey middle schools provided their most socially competent students with social media tools and encouragement to combat bullying, and saw a reduction in student conflict reports by 30 percent.

Therein lies the rub—as much as we may want to end childhood bullying, the most effective agents of change in that campaign aren’t going to be adults like us—they’re going to be the kids themselves, the peers of the ones both being bullied and doing the bullying. Because a time-honored tradition of any generation is to place uniquely important stock into the perspectives of their peers, not their elders, and it is a perspective that Jesus in fact saw on display in Matthew 11.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about two weeks ago, and then in chapter one, “Ministry in a Dislocated World,” last week, and now this week we arrive at the second chapter, “Ministry for the Rootless Generations,” in which Nouwen writes in part, about how he sees future generations:

Instead of (fathers), the peer becomes the standard. Many young people are completely unimpressed by the demands, expectations, and complaints of the big bosses of the adult world, show a scrupulous sensitivity to what their peers feel, think, and say about them. Being considered an outcast or a dropout by adults does not worry them, but being excommunicated by the small circle of friends to which they want to belong can be an unbearable experience.

Many young people may even become enslaved by the tyranny of their peers. While appearing indifferent, casual, and even dirty to their elders, their indifference is often carefully calculated, their casualness studied in the mirror, and their dirty appearance based on a detailed imitation of their friends.

But the tyranny of fathers is not the same as the tyranny of one’s peers. Rejecting the first means disobedience; rejecting the second, nonconformity. Rejecting the first creates feelings of guilt; rejecting the second, feelings of shame…this shift has very deep consequences, for if youth no longer aspire to become adult, and take the place of the fathers, and if the main motivation is conformity to the peer group, we might witness the death of a future-oriented culture.

Now, I urge you, with all my being, not to take either Nouwen’s or Jesus’s words today as a “kids these days!” spiel. I promise you, as much as you may have respected your own elders, you reserved a portion for your own peers as well, and you continue to today. It is why so many churches are *not* intergenerational, because the tension between younger and older generations proves to be too much when the youth do not have the same attachment to certain traditions and norms as their elders, but the elders do not want to give up those traditions and norms.

Jesus compares the generation He is in to a child playing music in the public square to which those around the child do not respond. And that really does encapsulate the younger generation’s experience of church—they have a voice, a beautiful, melodic voice, even, a voice that they are more than prepared at this point to share with the world…and they hear nothing in response. Or what they do hear is discouragement, rather than encouragement.

But then the peers are no better. Out of a generation may come someone extraordinary, like John the Baptist, whom Jesus mentions, and John is treated terribly by those with the social status to make their words matter. John even ends up dead as a result, and if you think that is too extreme a comparison to make to what may seem like run-of-the-mill bullying, consider that, say, GLBTQ teenagers are anywhere from two to four times more likely to commit suicide, in no small part because of their increased vulnerability to bullying.

Or that the double-standard the Pharisees exhibit towards John for not eating at all and towards Jesus for eating too much is the exact same double standard that so many supermodels come forward and say that they are subjected to: that they are shamed as bad examples for not eating enough, but are shamed within their industry as eating too much if they eat at all.

Which perhaps means that, considering the standards that we still place upon our women, that last week’s text on the Samaritan woman would have made a great text for this week’s message as well. And it probably would have been. The great thing about the Scriptures is that they do not contain only one lesson per story or per passage.

It is precisely the same way with people—we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that a person only is just one thing to us, or only has one thing to offer. The youth singing in the marketplace whom Jesus speaks of, whoever this youth may be beyond Jesus’s imagination is a youth who has more to offer than what we expect them to be.

That may be the greatest trap the church has fallen into—we expect people to only be certain things, to serve in certain roles: board member, deacon, elder, pastor. Perhaps, like the generation of which Jesus speaks, like John the Baptist, like Jesus Himself, people—especially our youth—do not so neatly fit into our expectations and our projections. Nor, necessarily, should they.

I would not have expected a sixteen-year-old to create an app to help classmates find a lunch table in order to avoid being alone or being bullied. Yet, here we are.

In truth, there is quite a bit of Jesus in that young girl’s invention of that app, because as Jesus says, it is His own willingness to dine with the outcasts, the so-called dregs of society, the tax collectors and the sinners, that is both used against Him by His opponents and which, in a purely positive way, utterly defines His ministry as a ministry that does indeed confound our expectations.

Let generation after generation of God’s children confound your expectations from time to time, and I think you may be pleasantly surprised by the results. For we may see them as rootless, but only if our expectation is to be able to recognize that which roots them to begin with.

For those roots can indeed be found here, in church, in God, and in Christ, if we choose to let those roots indeed be seen.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 30, 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Few Words on Pastor Appreciation Month

October, in addition to being the home of Halloween, Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day, and playoff baseball, is also Pastor Appreciation Month (not to be confused with Buy A Priest A Beer Day, which (a) is a real thing and (b) takes place in September).

Often, such articles and posts that make note of Pastor Appreciation Month do so from the perspective of how many hours pastors work. Sure, the running gag may be that we only work one hour a week, but because ministry is not a 9-to-5, punch-the-clock sort of gig, our work hours can vacillate wildly from week to week, and for almost every full-time pastor I know, 40 hours a week is the floor, not the ceiling, of the time they put in.

What gets lost in that analysis, though, important though it may be, is the qualitative toll of the hours we work, not just the quantitative toll. Yes, I give up a couple of evenings a week with my wife for job-related responsibilities. Yes, I have meals interrupted from time to time. But the fact that I make those sacrifices isn't what takes the most out of me, it really isn't.

Put a different way: taking an hour or two late at night to work on the week's sermon isn't such a big deal, really. Sometimes that is when the Spirit, tardy soul it sometimes is, chooses to strike, and I end up constructing a huge chunk of that week's message all in one go.

So it's really not the stuff that is actually written in my job description that takes such a toll--my need for the occasional sacramental Sunday nap aside. No, it's often what is not in the written job description--but that is still very much part and parcel of doing ministry--that is what wears a pastor down.

It is the anonymous comment--either in written or secondhand form--telling us that we are doing a crappy job (often because we are trying to change something that needs changing, or because we actually dared to be slightly prophetic from the pulpit or on social media) that wears us down.

It is the sheer ease with which churches enable molehills to become mountains and tempests to move from teapots to total eclipses that wears us down.

It is the deeply-held idolatry (and I use that word quite purposely) that surrounds the mentality of "well, this is the way we have always done things" when it comes to young adults and new members bringing a breath of fresh air to a static, ossified religion that wears us down.

It is the variability of our job descriptions: the fact that we are expected to keep office hours every day while also being out in the community, the fact that are expected to rigorously prepare every sermon while also being on-call for even the slightest thing, that wears us down.

None of those factors have anything to do with the length of hours we work, but they do have everything to do with the emotional nature of those hours.

They have everything to do with why we may lose sleep at night over our work in ways that many--not all, but many--other professions might not.

And if you've noticed--all of those factors I described are relational. Our greatest wounds tend not to be self-inflicted--although they absolutely can be (like the disproportionate lack of self-care among clergy). No, our greatest wounds often come from relational sins and peccadillos like pettiness, gossip, passive-aggresiveness, and the like--all of which we are fully capable of as well, but that we exhort others to avoid precisely because we know just how capable we are of being tempted by such painful indulgences.

The book I'm using for my current sermon series, Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer, takes as its underlying premise the notion that only from a place of woundedness can we in fact heal the wounds of others. It is a concept that I that I have grown to appreciate...and after all, it was through the wounds inflicted upon Jesus--and, more importantly, the subsequent resurrection that transcended those wounds--that we began to be redeemed.

So for Pastor Appreciation Month (or what remains of it) this year, please do not celebrate or appreciate your pastor--whether me or another minister--as a pure, porcelain statue or plaything. Instead, appreciate us for the scars that we bear and the wounds that we share as a result of our own brushes with the darkness. It is our understanding of how to strive against sin and injustice that makes us pastors, not our ignorance of--or obliviousness to--those very things.

That soul-sized work may leave marks. But it also creates new life. And that, regardless of the month, is most certainly worth appreciating.

Longview, Washington
October 27, 2016

Image courtesy of Cartoon Stock

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

An Open Question to My Pro-Life Brothers and Sisters

I'm cross-posting this from my Facebook page, where I first posted this earlier in the day, because of the honest and worthwhile discussion that it has engendered. I want that discussion to continue and to spread, so here it is. I normally don't just cross-post--I like being able to generate unique content for the Project--but for now, I hope you find the same value in discussing this very salient question as I have. So I'm sharing this, with no changes made to my original post. ~E.A.

This is something that I found myself thinking about on my way to work this morning--I've heard from multiple Christians, friends and colleagues whose friendship I appreciate, over the past couple of weeks explaining their potential Trump vote by saying (I'm paraphrasing here), "I don't know what Trump will do about abortion, but I know exactly what Clinton will do."

I want to set aside for a moment my own personal concerns with being a one-issue voter, as well as the other immense baggage that both major party candidates have (and, frankly, the two most prominent third-party candidates have as well, but that's another can of tuna).

Having set those questions aside for now, let's assume for a moment that a President Trump does indeed nominate a thoroughly pro-life justice to replace Scalia. Herein lies the rub: the SCOTUS is still one vote short of overturning Roe.

If there is any doubt in that reality, just look at Whole Women's Health v. Hellerstedt from the previous term, in which Kennedy (a) provided the crucial fifth vote to overturn Texas's HB2 law, as opposed to letting the court deadlock at 4-4, which would have kept the law intact, and (b) rather than write the opinion himself and basically dictate the case law as he saw fit--which would have been his prerogative as the senior justice in the majority--he handed the opinion off to a much more unequivocally pro-choice justice in Breyer.

So to get that fifth vote to overturn Roe, another justice would have to retire, most likely (due to age) either Kennedy or Ginsburg. The notion of Ginsburg retiring under a Trump administration, especially after her comments about him earlier this year, is pie-in-the-sky at best. But would Kennedy really want to retire under a Trump presidency, either? This is a SCOTUS justice whose key value is human dignity, and who will go at great lengths in an opinion to protect it. Trump so debases the dignity of others, especially those who cross him, that I have a hard time believing that Kennedy would want to retire during a Trump presidency.

So where does that leave pro-life Christians? Still a vote away from overturning Roe, and after four years of President Trump, no closer to actually doing so. And that's *if* Trump actually selects an anti-Roe justice, which, as we both agree, is a big 'if.'

Now, I ask this with all possible sincerity: is it worth the horribleness that Trump has directed towards the very people Scripture exhorts us to protect, revere, and uplift--the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the downtrodden--simply to, at best, tread water on Roe for the next presidential term?

And is it worth the harm that we would almost be certainly doing to the witness of the Gospel by elevating a profane, race-baiting serial womanizer to the most powerful job in the world simply because he tried to pander to us after decades of completely ignoring Christ's message?

It really is hard for me to see how it possibly could be.

Thanks for reading. I realize this is a very sensitive topic, with strong opinions on both sides. If you made it this far, I'm grateful for you hearing me out.

Longview, Washington
October 25, 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Dislocated World"

John 4:1-15

Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was making more disciples and baptizing more than John (2 although Jesus’ disciples were baptizing, not Jesus himself). 3 Therefore, he left Judea and went back to Galilee.

4 Jesus had to go through Samaria. 5 He came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, which was near the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his journey, so he sat down at the well. It was about noon. 

7 A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me some water to drink.” 8 His disciples had gone into the city to buy him some food. 9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.) 

10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you don’t have a bucket and the well is deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 You aren’t greater than our father Jacob, are you? He gave this well to us, and he drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week Two

The awkward stares away to avoid eye contact—you know them, right? A custodian or janitor comes through, doing their work cleaning whatever space you’re in, and you self-consciously shuffle out of their way and silently let them go about their job.

Do you say hello to the person? Ask them how their day is going? Or maybe raise a several thousand dollars for them to be able visit their family in South Sudan whom they have not seen in 45 years?

At a place like Georgetown University, tuition, room, and board cost…wait for it…over $65,000/year, there is what one student called “this space, like ice, separating us.” That student, Febin Bellamy, had transferred to Georgetown from community college, and he felt himself increasingly empathizing with the Georgetown support staff, so he started a little social media venture that he called Unsung Heroes in order to tell the stories of those staff members, and I’ll let the Washington Post pick it up from here:

Students learned that the guy who cleans the business school windows (Oneil) Batchelor, left a place of little opportunity in Jamaica 20 years ago and dreams of opening his own jerk-chicken joint someday.

They learned that one of the cooks at the Leo O’Donovan Dining Hall, Jose Manzanares, saw family members killed in El Salvador’s civil war and escaped when he was a teenager.

They realized that every time Memuna Tackie, the woman vacuuming the carpet at the stately Riggs Library, asked a question about an English word, they were helping the immigrant from Ghana study for her citizenship test.

The guy who runs the cash register at the dining hall? Umberto “Suru” Ripai hasn’t seen his family in what is now South Sudan for 45 years.…

Batchelor really is a gifted cook. Students who read about him encouraged him to hold fundraisers serving his now-famous-on-campus chicken. They raised $2,500, got him catering gigs, and helped him put up his own web page: Oneil’s Famous Jerk…

That cafeteria cashier at Leo’s? The same students who once silently handed their meal cards to Ripai just raised more than $5,500 on a GoFundMe page for him to go to South Sudan.

The Georgetown students went from ignoring their school’s staff to honoring them for who they were, and that is no small metamorphosis. When it comes to people who are not like us, we tend to take one of three tacks: we denigrate who they are because they are different, we want them to be the same as us in a co-option of Paul’s “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” sentiment, or we actually respect and honor who they are. Guess which option Jesus ends up going with here in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4?

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague and friend of this congregation, Marvin Eckfeldt, gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, which we talked about last week, and then in chapter one, “Ministry to a Dislocated World,” in which Nouwen writes in part:

Is there a third way, a Christian way?...For the mystic as well as the revolutionary, life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence and following the vision that has become manifest to us. Whatever we call this vision—“The Holy,” The Spirit,” or “Father”—we still believe that conversion and revolution alike derive their power from a source beyond the limitations of our own createdness. For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in man’s search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross.

“Life means breaking through the veil covering our human existence.” That goes hand-in-hand with understanding that changing the heart and changing society are indeed not separate tasks, because these all end up combined in this story in John 4.

First, a bit of background, some of which John provides but that is worth building upon: Judeans and Samaritans were at odds because over 900 years before Jesus, the unified kingdom of Solomon was torn into two, with Solomon’s former chief slaver Jeroboam ruling over the northern kingdom of Israel while Solomon’s son and heir Rehoboam ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem and, by extension, the temple.

Because Jeroboam did not have a temple around which to center religion, he created two golden calves (where have we heard this story before?), said, basically, “Here, O Israel, are your gods,” (where have we heard this story before?), and despite being condemned by one of God’s prophets for having done so, in so doing he ended up putting down the roots for the religious division between the Samaritans—the people of Samaria, which was a part of the northern kingdom of Israel—and the Judeans.

Okay, fast forward back to this story in John 4. That is why John says that Judeans and Samaritans do not play well with each other. But there are other factors to consider here: first, this woman is alone, there is nobody else at the well besides her and Jesus. And believe it or not, John tells us why: it was about noon.

Now, I’ve been in Israel during the summer, I’ve been down in the dirt, digging through mounds of sand and rock uncovering archaeological artifacts (amazingly, it’s nothing at all like Indiana Jones). And it is brutally, oppressively hot. And water is heavy. Carrying more than several gallons of it requires some muscles. That is why the usual time to go to wells to draw water would be first thing in the morning, not at high noon.

This is John telling us—without spelling it out for us—that this woman is a complete, utter pariah. Later on in this story, we find out why: because she has had five husbands. Now, no Larry King or, dare I say, Donald Trump was this woman—first, women could not even file for divorce under Mosaic law, only men could, which was why Jesus taught against divorce in the first place—it was such a straightforward thing for unscrupulous husbands to exploit in bad faith. What this piece of news means is that this woman has had five husbands either divorce her or die on her. That might make someone the target of too much gossip today too. So you can imagine why she might not want to subject herself to it then, either.

But Jesus does not care about any of that—that she’s a Samaritan, that she’s a woman, that she’s a woman who has been married five times. He asks her for a drink. Because water is water, regardless of whether it is given to you by a good friend or from someone you’ve been conditioned to despise.

Jesus could easily have chosen that latter course of action—and His disciples, upon their return, are perhaps surprised that he did not. That is the first way we tend to respond to people different from us that I mentioned—that we take those differences and use them to demonize that person. Jesus does no such thing; He asks her for water and engages her in conversation.

Nor does Jesus take the second tack of simply pretending that there are not those differences between the two of them. This is a particularly subtle and insidious trap that we fall into in which we expect someone who is different to fully assimilate into our culture, including here at church, where we try to fit someone in as a cog in the machine we already have up and going rather than asking them to help us build something new and potentially glorious.

No, Jesus recognizes her for who she is, and in speaking to her as He would to a man, or to a Judean, He affirms her fundamental value as a child of God. And in changing her heart, Jesus, true to the words of Nouwen, ends up changing society: this anonymous Samaritan woman will go on to return to her town and, despite her dehumanized status at home, John reports that a great many Samaritans believed her words and, by extension, believed Jesus as well.

Jesus strode into a dislocated world, and He began to right it, with the help of the words of a cast-off, cast aside woman whose name has been lost to the shortsightedness of historical sexism in which the names of such women counted scarcely for naught.

But honor her we must, just as the students at Georgetown honored the people around them who had previously been nameless, who looked different and talked different and lived different but who, precisely because of those differences that were not demonized and that were not swept under the rug but that were on full display for God and everyone to see, produced richer lives all around—the staff, the students, all of them.

And indeed, such transformational change is so intertwined with our own calling as Christians that, like the crossbeams of the cross Nouwen writes of, we cannot separate the two. Nor should we ever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 23, 2016

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Typhoon

My gaze flickers up from the page upon which I have been writing furiously for the past hour, in the fleeting and vain hope that there might be something left that is vaguely of the Spirit in my weak, hollowed-out shell of a body for my Sunday message.

My eyes look up out the window, and I see the trees begin to bend and buckle under the might of the gales that the meteorologists, the newscasters, that everyone, even, it seems, God Almighty, told us were a-comin'.

The rain pounds upon the deck, the clouds roll and roil over the horizon, and I wonder what will come next.

But then the eye of the remnants of Typhoon Songda passes over. Calm reigns. The sun even peeks out to make its presence known. Knowing that the other side of the typhoon's eyewall is on its way, I take the opportunity to take the pups out for their afternoon constitutional.

Wood of all manner is splintered and shattered on the sidewalks. Some of it has come down from the trees. Some of it is from the remains of the signs of the campaigns of local politicians all vying for our vote in a few weeks' time. But they are, and remain, the general limit of the destruction of a force that we were told would be much greater, far more fearsome, and terribly more cataclysmic than what ultimately came to our homes.

The pups and I make a turn, the first of several in our usual route.

Meanwhile, half a hemisphere away, thousands of souls in Haiti are mourning their dead in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Dozens of families in the United States are doing the exact same. Also from a typhoon--a hurricane. The words are different, but the fundamental nature of the phenomena is the same.

I know not why I was spared from the worst of a storm that we were all told would be greater than it was. But I have some inkling of an idea of why I was spared and why hundreds of Haitian lives were not.

The pups and I make our next turn, moving just a bit further and further away from the apartment we still, for at least a few more weeks, call home.

It is not so simple to just say that I won the birth lottery of the world, although I did. It is not so simple to just say that my country's neighbors, both near like Haiti and far like, say, Angola or South Africa, have been ill-served by not only their own leaders but by the world...although they have been. And it is not so simple to just say that the grace of the one true God somehow saw fit to spare an acerbic, scotch-swilling crank of a pastor on the West Coast while consigning so many souls just a few time zones away to death in a virtually identical meteorological event.

Oh no, simplicity is a luxury I can hardly afford right now. No, it must be complexity.

Another turn is made on our walk. The pups and I are beginning to walk back towards home.

Amid the calm of the typhoon's eye, I can feel the fire kindling within my heart. What is so simple--so very, very simple--to say is that if the people of a country like Haiti, or Angola, or any other of countless other places where poverty claims such a substantial number of deaths, is that if the people in Haiti had what I have--a sturdy home with a roof and a foundation, built to survive at least some manner of extremity, Matthew's bloodshed would have been far less.

More people would have lived, full stop. And that they did not is not a testament to the brutal nature of chance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of it just being the time that your number got called.

Oh no. Like I said, simplicity is a luxury that I can hardly afford. And it is one that we can hardly afford.

I have seen so much of what the ancients would have once called the wrath of God in my five years here. I have stood in the path of a tornado, watched it blow the hat right off my head, and had my photos of its destruction splashed across the cybersphere for God and everybody to see.

I have seen much, and I have learned much, and I now know that what we chalk up, at least outwardly, as chance, is anything but.

It was not mere chance that hundreds died in Haiti while my I marvel at the lack of destruction in my home.

It was, and is, something much more than that.

I can hear the roar of the wind up in the skies. It is time to make one final turn back home, before the typhoon's eyewall passes back over us.

Of course the world is capricious. It has always been thus and will always be thus. The scriptures say in Ecclesiastes that the battle is not for the strong, nor the race for the swift, for time and chance happens to them all.

But the world's fickleness does not absolve us of our own global-sized culpability.

It is no accident that the greatest of death tolls in natural disasters so often seem to occur in places more impoverished than others. It is no coincidence, no cosmic chance of fate.

It is because our own iniquities and inequalities remain in a world so fragile and shakily held together that a gust of wind, whether from the big bad wolf of children's fairy tales or from a Category Five cyclone, can rend apart the so carefully built and assiduously put together life of an entire family, an entire city, an entire community.

Put bluntly, if I had less, and my fellow children elsewhere had more, these natural disasters would be both less natural--on account of (hopefully) less change to the climate--and less disastrous.

I have taken one small step towards that nascent pipe dream--I made a small donation to Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres for Hurricane Matthew relief efforts. I would humbly ask you to do the same.

It won't be enough. I can promise you that.

But in the divinely ordained work of kingdom-building, it may well lay a brick or two.

Back inside, I see the rain pick back up and the winds howl, the trees bending against their force as they were earlier in the day. And I return to my writing secure in the knowledge that I will indeed see another day, another sunrise, and another message that keep praying has some semblance of the Spirit coursing through its words.

For it is with words that I continue to hope that faith may yet abide in the kingdom-bricklaying business that we all are in.

Yes, that may seem a simple proposition in the face of an immeasurably complex problem.

But if we remain capable of encouraging one another to lay a brick or two, then it will be a better world.

Vancouver, Washington
October 17, 2016

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Sunday, October 16, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Four Open Doors"

Revelation 3:17-22

After all, you say, ‘I’m rich, and I’ve grown wealthy, and I don’t need a thing.’ You don’t realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked. 18 My advice is that you buy gold from me that has been purified by fire so that you may be rich, and white clothing to wear so that your nakedness won’t be shamefully exposed, and ointment to put on your eyes so that you may see. 19 I correct and discipline those whom I love. So be earnest and change your hearts and lives. 20 Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me. 21 As for those who emerge victorious, I will allow them to sit with me on my throne, just as I emerged victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Common English Bible)

“The Wounded Healer: Finding Strength in Our Scars,” Week One

It was a moment straight out of a novel or a movie: the long-lost brother, not knowing that he is in fact talking to his brother, realizes over the course of their conversation that he is conversing with a sibling whom he has not seen in years, decades, even. The reasons why can drive the entire plots of stories such as these, but sometimes, reality does indeed rise to meet the level of fiction.

You probably haven’t ever heard the name of William Still, though in truth, you should have—we all should have. If the world were truly just, his name and deeds would be taught in every history class in the country, for he, along with other 19th-century abolitionists, created the Underground Railroad of Harriet Tubman and so many others. William Still is credited by historians with having assisted 800 or more slaves to their eventual freedom, and he worked for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which acted as a resource for abolitionists and free blacks alike—free blacks like Mr. Still himself. You may well have been imagining a white man, but William Still was black.

One day, a freed slave named Peter came to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society for help in locating his parents and siblings. William was known for keeping meticulous records, including of his own family, listened to Peter recount what he knew about his family, and it began to dawn on him that they were in fact brothers. The clincher was Peter describing how another brother of his was whipped to death, and William exclaimed, “What if I told you I was your brother!”

Afterwards, Peter got to see his mother, whom he had not seen in 42 years.

Though it might not occur to us to think so, these slaves who traveled the underground railroad were essentially refugees, fleeing an oppressive government in search of freedom. In this manner, we might liken them not to fugitives, as was the case back then, but to the very same people we count as our ancestors, looking to a new world to open a door to them that had before been closed in their face. It is right for us to honor that quest for the open door, and it is Biblical for us to honor it.

This is a new sermon series that will take us up to the church season of Advent, which is the time we prepare for Christmas. Before we arrive at the land of egg nog and gingerbread, though, we have one more series to undertake together, and it is based on a formative book which I first read in its entirety when I arrived here and a colleague gave to me: The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and theologian who passed away about twenty years ago, but not before leaving behind him a rich vein of theological and pastoral literature. Though relatively brief as far as theological treatises go, The Wounded Healer is arguably Nouwen’s magnum opus: accessible, lucid, poignant, and passionate in its fundamental premise that only by understanding our own wounds and scars can we as Christians and as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ then, in turn, heal others of their own wounds and scars.

The Wounded Healer is a four-chapter book with a prologue, and we have five weeks in all, so we will be able to spend a week on each section, beginning with the book’s prologue, in which Nouwen writes in part:

As Antonio Porchia says, “A door opens to me. I go in and am faced with a hundred closed doors.” (Voices, Chicago, 1969) Any new insight which suggested an answer led me to many new questions, which remained unanswered. But I wanted at least to prevent the temptation of not entering any doors at all out of fear of the closed ones…in the middle of all fragmentation, one image slowly arose as the focus of all considerations: the image of the wounded healer…(a minister’s) service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks. Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing.

In truth, what Nouwen is saying here, in a single sentence, is that our experience is what defines us. It is not a new notion—the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote that character is destiny—but it is a notion that we tend to forget and are in frequent need of reminding of.

Consider for a moment the church in Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania) to whom John of Patmos is addressing in this passage from Revelation 3. It is the same church that, immediately prior, John famously rebukes for being neither hot or cold but lukewarm, but (and this would have been a great installment for our last sermon series on taking famous Bible verses out of context!) we forget why exactly the church in Philadelphia is seen as lukewarm: because, as John writes, they have placed their faith not in God, but in material idols—“After all, you say, ‘I’m rich, and I’ve grown wealthy, and I don’t need a thing.’”

If that is the sum total of our human experience—the pursuit of mammon—then we need John’s words, and Nouwen’s words, more than ever, for both John and Henri Nouwen speak of the need to open up a new door to new experiences in our lives. John evokes the image of God Himself standing and knocking at our doors, and Nouwen speaks of having to resist the temptation to not open any door that may be available to us.

The overall lesson is the same: we are meant to fashion for ourselves new experiences, new opportunities, new chances to grow in our faith and to branch out into the faith of others. Our own growth is limited if we only look inward—we must be continually looking for that open door that has been placed in front of us, and ironically, sometimes we miss that door even when it is in as plain of sight as the beautiful Gothic doors to our sanctuary.

On the day before my ordination, I posted a poem to my Facebook page. The poem itself is anonymous, but I came across it because one of my college friends had shared it years previous upon her conversion to Judaism and her ceremonial mikveh. The poem reads:

Either you will go through this door or you will not go through
If you go through, there is always the risk of remembering your name
Things look at you doubly, and you must look back and let them happen
If you do not go through, it is possible to live worthily, to maintain your attitudes, to hold your position, to die bravely
But much will blind you, much will evade you, at what cost who knows?
The door itself makes no promises
It is only a door

If you choose not to go through an open spiritual door in your life, yes, it is still possible to live a decent life, to stay true to who you are, and to one day die with dignity. But what will you have given up to remain in stasis, to remain only who you were and not who you one day could become? That may seem a luxury to us, but only because of our relative privilege, like the church in Philadelphia. I promise you that for someone like Peter Still, going through that door was not a luxury, it was an imperative. He could not bear being enslaved, saw the open door before him, and strode through it.

I use that language deliberately. Spiritually, we are refugee slaves ourselves, on the run from our enslavement to sin and on the route that, we hope and pray, leads us heavenward towards God.

It means that we should be able and willing to similarly open the doors that present themselves to us in the form of the choices we make—the choice to show Christian compassion and charity, the chance to reach out and try to understand someone’s story, the chance to create a new relationship where previously there had been only you and a stranger.

These are the sorts of choices that define us, as people and as Christians. Being Christian is not simply defined by your baptism, by some water and some words that I speak over you, no, being Christian is defined by the doors that John and Nouwen write of, the doors that may be closed but that can be opened with the love of Christ.

As a church and as a religion, we shut ourselves off from the world far too often. We put too much faith, as the Philadelphian church did, in our own human-made trappings of comfort and we become unwilling to branch out and actually step outside the door into the unknown, into the wilderness, into the mission field that Jesus would in fact have us dare to tread foot in. My proof, as it were, is the existence of another door, the rolled-away stone that once sealed the tomb of our Savior but was cast aside on the third day as a sign that the grave had indeed been conquered.

Yet even with death defeated, our ultimate home is not the home we live in now, and so we, as refugees, live and worship alongside other refugees. It is incumbent upon us to honor them, then, with the consideration of an open door, a set table, and a kind and caring presence.

I like being able to end my sermons with my own words, but today, I deviate from that rule because, in the spirit of honoring our roles as spiritual refugees, I thought it best to instead honor another fellow traveler from long ago, Emma Lazarus, by telling to you her words in the second half her most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” whose words are etched for eternity into the Statue of Liberty that has stood to greet refugees from the world over as they arrive upon our shores:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Ah, there it is, that image of the door again. With the light of God illuminating our sight, may we too strive to find it, like the Easter tomb’s stone, open, with the life that it promises to each of us lovingly and gloriously laid out to behold.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 16, 2016

Monday, October 10, 2016

Donald Trump is Josh Duggar, Writ Large. Sorry, I Mean Writ "Yuge."

The hardest blog post I've ever written came almost a year and a half ago, in the wake of the explosive revelations that Josh Duggar, the oldest child of the Duggar family (that cadre of blindingly white fundamentalist Christians on "19 Kids and Counting"), had sexually abused several women, including some of his sisters, in a manner extremely similar to how I myself had once been sexually abused as a child.

So I outed myself as a sexual abuse victim after having spent the prior two decades confiding that fact about myself to a bare handful of people closest to me. I did so because I felt--and still feel--very strongly that Christian culture needs to take a long, hard look at how it enables, excuses, and covers up allegations of sexual abuse. Even after the reckoning brought about by the Roman Catholic priest scandals, we as Christians still struggle mightily with taking seriously the scope and scale of sexual assault by our adherents.

I was disgusted by Donald Trump's comments on that 2005 tape--not just because I experienced being coerced into having someone grab my own genitals that traumatic night 21 years ago--but because I have long since cut out any possible contact with my abuser from my life, and that simply isn't possible in the case of Donald Trump. As a major party's nominee for president, he is on every network, every cable news outlet. And even after he loses badly on November 8th, he will continue to have an outsized media presence because (a) he is Donald Trump, and (b) Trumpism is not going to die with his electoral defeat.

To put it another way--why do we have a lower bar for the person we'll vote for to be the leader of the free world than I do for the people I keep contact with in my life? I love my friends, but even with all their obvious gifts, smarts, and thoughtfulness, I'm not sure I'd actually want any them with the codes to the nuclear football. That job should be reserved for the barest of handfuls of people in the country.

I cannot stress that point enough. My friends, to a person, provided me with incredibly kind and thoughtful words of support when I did out myself and share my personal history of sexual abuse. They showed far more humanity to me in that moment than Donald Trump ever has in the public stage. And I still wouldn't necessarily want to hand the nuclear codes over to them simply because they are my friends and I love them.

And my situation is a luxury: I was able to cut off all contact with the person who coerced me and abused me. And it was only one person, on one night. Some victims are repeatedly assaulted, some are assaulted by multiple people, and for some, it is impossible to completely cut their abusers so cleanly and entirely out of their lives.

Those are luxuries we simply do not have with Donald Trump--not on Friday when the tape dropped, and not now after evangelical Christian leaders like Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Pat Robertson all elected to continue to stand by Trump's candidacy (and in Robertson's odious case, actually endorse the behavior Trump was caught on tape describing).

American Christianity's moral credibility is facing a great precipice: do we continue along the way we have for decades of having our institutional identity go hand-in-hand with an increasingly racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic message being peddled in this election, or do we finally break free of our self-made shackles and finally, in the true tradition of the Biblical prophets, begin speaking truth to power?

This isn't about politics, I promise. It really isn't. I haven't even mentioned a single political issue--not a word from me today on the Supreme Court, or the Affordable Care Act, or anything of the sort.

This is about something much more fundamental to our humanity. I saw very few people, if anyone (aside from the same litany of public Christian figures like Mike Huckabee) defend Josh Duggar. But I see so many people right now defending Donald Trump.

So to those who are doing so--especially if you identify as Christian--is your excusing the predatory behavior of a serial womanizer worth communicating your disdain to the scorned wife who is his opponent? Is the spiritual and mental pain you are communicating to sexual abuse victims worth the chance to continue to stand with someone who bragged about repeatedly forcing himself on women?

And can you answer those questions without bringing up Bill Clinton? Because Slick Willie--morally detestable though he surely is--is not on the ballot. And when he was, I beg you, a thousand pardons for my not having voted against him. But in my defense, I was six and ten years old the two times that he was on the ballot.

No, this time, it is your guy's name that is on the ballot. And you have a choice. A choice that can define you, should you choose to let it. You can choose to continue to minimize and excuse who and what he is.

Or you can decide to reclaim your Christian identity anew. You don't have to vote for Hillary. In fact, if you do find her abjectly unsuited for the job, then please don't vote for her. There are any number of third-party candidates out there. Or take a cue from any number of Republican leaders who are now saying that they'll write in someone else.

Scripture says, "How can I see your faith apart from your actions?" (James 2:18, CEB) It comes from a longer passage on the importance of action as a result from, and a reflection of, one's faith.

Denying the reality of sexual assault is one such work. It is reflective of a certain faith, or absence thereof.

It is not a work, I think--not after the priest scandals, not after Josh Duggar, and most certainly not after Donald Trump--that God desires from us.

And to my friends who identify as female: I see your hurt and your pain not just from Trump's comments and half-assed apology for them, but also from the ways in which your friends or relatives are excusing and spinning those words away.

I share that pain--so far as I am able to as a man--because of my own story as a past victim of sexual abuse.

And I continue to hope and pray that you will be embraced by a world that affirms your pain for what it is, rather than minimizing or dismissing it for what the world would prefer that it be instead.

Longview, Washington
October 10, 2016

#NeverTrump image courtesy of Twitter

Sunday, October 9, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Earthly and Heavenly Things"

John 3:9-21

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.

16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son. 19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Five

I want to talk with all of you for a minute about a man who I know is a hero for almost all of you as Mariners fans, and for me, despite my own allegiance to my hometown Kansas City Royals: Ichiro.

He is a hero for you because he is a club legend up in Seattle, but he is a hero to me because he so treasures something that I too have come to treasure: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the heart of my childhood city of Kansas City. Bob Kendrick, the longtime president of the museum, related a story to ESPN about Ichiro when he came to visit the museum in 2007:

Kendrick showed Ichiro a rare program from a barnstorming tour of Japan that a Negro League team called the Philadelphia Royal Giants made in 1927. Ichiro held the fragile paper in his hands, read from the Japanese on the cover. Then he got around to why he had come. He pulled out his checkbook. Kendrick won’t say how much Ichiro donated to the museum, but he says it was the biggest donation from any active player.

Kendrick sees a kinship between Ichiro and the black players who integrated the major leagues. It’s not apples to apples. No one fought to keep Ichiro out of the majors. But Kendrick believes he faced similar hurdles. “So many people were skeptical that his skill set would transfer from Japan. People thought he wasn’t as good,” Kendrick says. “I always understood the parallels between the guys coming out of the Negro Leagues and what Ichiro had to deal with. They were always trying to erase that doubt.”

It is easy to forget now, because in the wake of Ichiro, so many incredibly talented Japanese ballplayers have plied their trade here in the States, but Ichiro was the first to really break in and stay in here in the big leagues. He showed that East Asian ballplayers were worth our fandom and adoration. He showed that East Asian ballplayers are not just some exotic novelty thing—no small thing when we are still having to deal with FoxNews segments that revel in racist Asian stereotypes—but that they can be the type of players you can build an entire franchise around.

Ichiro, I think, saw a glimpse of what Robinson saw in having to break down those cultural preconceptions, and to do so with a smile on his face, never reacting to peoples’ stereotypes and never lashing out in the media or on the field. He empathized with the Negro Leagues ballplayers in a unique way. He understood what Jesus would call here in John 3 an earthly thing—and it caused him to commit to a heavenly thing. And that is what is at the core of John 3—even John 3:16!

This is the final installment of the first of sermon series for the fall season before we arrive at Advent—summer has at long last finally given way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we have returned to a thematic sermon series, one that concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We have discussed several such verses—Jeremiah 29:11, John 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 4:19, and Philippians 4:13—and are now returning once more to the Gospel of John to talk about perhaps the most famous verse of all: John 3:16—for God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.

It is a verse that so many of us have committed to heart. It is a verse that the burger chain In-N-Out prints on the bottoms of its soda cups. It is a ubiquitous, omnipresent verse that is taken out of its context within a discourse with the Pharisee Nicodemus as a summation of the Gospels.

Except that this summation is predicated on something critical. Eternal life is something that we have taken to mean something heavenly—that is, that we will, after we die, live forever in heaven. It is, then one of the ‘heavenly things’ that Jesus refers to in verse 12: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

In other words, if we do not take Jesus at His word when He teaches us about earthly things, then whether we believe Him or not when it comes to a heavenly thing like eternal life is all for naught.

This isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus teaches this: it also shows up as the moral to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, when Abraham—a proxy for YHWH—says to the rich man being tormented in hell and asking to warn his relatives of the torment that awaits them too, a la Jacob Marley, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

Think about that for a minute. If we are not persuaded by an earthly messenger of God’s like Moses or Isaiah—someone extraordinary but still, when you get down to brass tacks, completely and utterly human—then why, Jesus says, would we be persuaded by Him, and His message?

And in truth, we really aren’t persuaded by His message, *especially* as it concerns the earthly things. Jesus taught complete renunciation of wealth, not just to the rich man asking for eternal life, but to all of us: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:35)

He taught giving to everyone who begs, to not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from us, and to not pursue anything of ours that gets stolen from us (Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:30).

He taught that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).

Do you think that we really believe Jesus when He says all these things? We can profess that we do, but our actions—a far more accurate diviner of beliefs than professions of faith, I think—tend to say otherwise.

We still glorify wealth. We still look for reasons to be stingy with others. We still seek retribution. And we still pursue, at all costs, our own glorification rather than God’s.

And since we do all these earthly things—and not just do them, but revel in them and cherish them and highlight them—just how much do we really believe Jesus, then, when He says that whosoever believes in Him shall have the heavenly thing of eternal life?

Indeed, far from even believing Jesus, we seem ill-equipped to even believe each other, or to believe God when God speaks to us through each other.

We still do not believe the African-American neighbor when they say that they were mistreated because of how they looked—“You must’ve misinterpreted that,” or “That cannot have been what they meant,” we say.

We still do not believe the victim of sexual or physical assault when they finally come forward—“You must’ve invited it somehow,” or “You were secretly wanting it to happen.”

If we cannot believe these earthly things, said by earthly people, how can we be entrusted with believing in heavenly things from the most heavenly being of all, Jesus, the one we call Christ?

That is, for me, why Ichiro’s example matters. He believed in the story and the meaning behind the Negro Leagues—what they campaigned for and fought against. And he backed up that belief with perhaps the most earthly—but also most potent—statement of value there is: his pocketbook.

It was a sacrifice of Ichiro’s, and when you consider that this most heavenly of beings, Jesus, was Himself a sacrifice, then the heavenly dimensions of a gesture like Ichiro’s really does come into focus.

He was prepared to embrace the heavenly thing of sacrifice because he already believed in the earthly thing of the Negro Leagues’ story that was placed before him.

Who are we to say that we really are prepared to do likewise?

Hopefully perhaps one day, someday soon I pray, we indeed will be.

For God so loved the world…perhaps it is time to love the world, and to believe in its earthly things, right back.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 9, 2016

Sunday, October 2, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Croix de Guerre"

Philippians 4:10-20

I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress. 15 You Philippians know from the time of my first mission work in Macedonia how no church shared in supporting my ministry except you. 16 You sent contributions repeatedly to take care of my needs even while I was in Thessalonica. 17 I’m not hoping for a gift, but I am hoping for a profit that accumulates in your account. 18 I now have plenty and it is more than enough. I am full to overflowing because I received the gifts that you sent from Epaphroditus. Those gifts give off a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice that pleases God. 19 My God will meet your every need out of his riches in the glory that is found in Christ Jesus. 20 Let glory be given to God our Father forever and always. Amen. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Four

The Croix de Guerre—literally, “the Cross of War”—is France’s highest award for military valor, and despite the country’s historical close ties to the United States, it was not until the First World War that any American soldier was awarded the Croix de Guerre—two soldiers, in fact, were: Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, both of whom were good friends who met in the 369th Infantry. Their unit, nicknamed the Hellfighters, were embedded with a French unit when both men saw the action that would necessitate their extraordinary acts of valor in preserving the French military camp. The valor of Henry Johnson in particular was remarkable, as he was only 5’4” and weighed a scant 130 pounds, yet despite taking 21 wounds that day, he held the French position.

But why were Privates Johnson and Roberts embedded in the French military to begin with, rather than the American military? Were they specialists sent to do a particular job, or were they French speakers themselves? No, they were fighting alongside the French because they were both black, and the American regiments overseas had refused to fight alongside black troops.

That lack of regard for soldiers of color came through in the aftermath of the war as well, as the treatment of Henry Johnson could not be more stark in its differences between the French and American peoples (per

Indebted to their efforts in saving the camp, the French military hierarchy awarded the two men with the Croix de Guerre military decoration. France’s highest award for bravery, this was a massive honor to the two privates who were the first Americans to receive the medal, and (both were) promoted to sergeant. Johnson was additionally given a golden palm wreath on his ribbon for ‘extraordinary valor.’

After the defeat of the Triple Alliance, the Hellfighters returned home to be greeted by a parade in New York. Johnson rode in an open-top Cadillac, but the parade would be the limit of his rewards. The hero was denied a disability pension and was even refused the Purple Heart…

…in private, the great man was struggling. After being denied work back at the Union Station due to his wounds, he found it difficult to get another job. Uneducated and in his early twenties, Johnson, like so many of the other returning soldiers, could not overcome the trauma and injury he had suffered in France. The turmoil eventually drove him to hit the bottle and soon his wife and children left him behind. He died penniless in 1929, aged 32.

It was not until 1996 that Henry Johnson was finally awarded the Purple Heart, 78 years after his courage became known to the country and to the world. He did not receive the Distinguished Service Cross until 2003, and the Congressional Medal of Honor until 2015.

We usually take Philippians 4:13—“I can do (or endure) all things through the One who strengthens me”—and yet while Henry Johnson did indeed do and endure all things that day in 1918, his country collectively could not and would not in terms of honoring him until just last year. And it is precisely because of such failings that we have to see Philippians 4:13 in its communal context.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer has at long last finally given way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

The best—and funniest instance—of taking a verse out of context I’ve seen, though, is the one we’ll be talking about today, the to introduce this series: a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”

Paul says those words in Philippians 4:13 as one part of two much broader contexts: first, Philippians is, along with the letters to Philemon and to the Colossians, one of Paul’s prison letters—he was imprisoned at the time, and when he speaks in this passage of the Philippians sharing in his distress, it is not unreasonable to think it a reference to his imprisonment, just the same as Paul telling them that he has learned “how to be content in any circumstance,” which you might be more apt to find on the bookshelf in the self-help section, but is an incredibly important trait for someone who is being persecuted to have.

Paul’s words here, though, are not really about him—it is, as the late New Testament scholar Father Daniel Harrington, S.J., said, something of a thank-you note to the Philippians, one that expresses Paul’s gratitude for everything that they have done for, and in solidarity with, Paul during his trials and tribulations.

That word “still” in verse 14 indicates the importance of the Philippians in those trials: even though Paul can endure them with the help of God, *still* the Philippians do right by him. It means that even if someone may be okay on their own, we are not to leave them on their own. And when they are not okay on their own, sadly, we still have this terrible tendency to set people adrift to struggle.

So the matter at hand really isn’t the individually inspirational sentiment of 4:13, but that even when we may well be able to live up to Paul’s example in that verse, it never really was about us to begin with, but about the community and society around us that is meant to lift us up and be there for us, not to write us off.

Think again of Private Henry Johnson. He was able to do so much in a moment of need through whatever faith may have strengthened him. But his Philippi, his community, did not reciprocate.

Or, rather, another community, another country did: France. But France was not where he went back to live and ultimately, to die at far too young an age. It was here. And it continues to be here for so many people: veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, people who become homeless because of untreated mental illness, people with addiction, and so many others. In our regard (or lack thereof) to those who are not in our immediate circle of loved ones and friends—and sometimes, even when they are—we are still not a Philippian world yet, not by a long shot.

For if we did, then, indeed, we all could do all things through the One who strengthens us, because God strengthens us in so many ways, not just in our own individual relationships with God, but through our relationships with each other. That is Paul’s hope and expectation for us, just as it was for the church in Philippi.

So for today, for this week, this time, take to heart Paul’s words not because of what they say about him, but because of what they say about the community that surrounds him. Perhaps the easiest way we can do that is to take out the subject word of verse 13—“I”—and replace it with “we.”

We can do all things through the One who strengthens us.

And all those things does include, and must include, strengthening one another.

Strengthening all of us.

Strengthening, ultimately, the eventual kingdom.

Let us be so encouraged, so exhorted, and so empowered by the God who strengthen us, through our own church of Philippi, to do such great things.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
October 2, 2016